More Than Words

Several years before iPhone and Siri, a friend and I started working on a voice based computer platform. We realized that it could be done locally, or at distance, with computer speech tools or with an efficient human based engine. This approach was as flexible and as powerful as we could imagine any computing system could be, given that humans were the intended users. We went on to collaborate on other things [1] but didn’t have the positioning to make our system work at the time.

Today, this idea seems a little less exciting. It’s a lot more common, there are a lot of systems all around us that do it relatively poorly, and we see that it has some limits, for at least the foreseeable future. However, we may also realize a greater limitation. Even if it were possible to do this perfectly, or at least as well as it’s done in Her [2] and other examples, all we can do is speak. As far as we can tell, for the time being, there’s no faster, richer communication that we can partake in. This is a little depressing, because it means we may be just a few years away from a state of peak communication efficiency with computers, and yet, we probably still need so much more.

Bret Victor [3] has toyed with a version of this issue and tried to consider how the tools we use to achieve things could be designed to help us do more, more deeply, and more rapidly, than we can now. In the same way that the industrial revolution deeply changed society, Bret proposes a notion of a dynamical representation of thought to let us think about systems and their relationships to understand implications of decisions over time, in a way we have a lot of trouble doing now [4].

Sadly, I don’t know of any other examples of this type of view, and in particular, I don’t think I’ve seen it reflected in thoughts about future interactive systems in popular media or in design fiction literature. Similar to the discussion of what do we do when AI becomes more mature than we do, I wonder how we deal with needing to communicate with ourselves and our computers, better than we can with each other.


  1. Shuman, Yosef, and Mark E. Whiting. What Is Service Design? N.p., 2014. Web.
  2. Her. Dir. Spike Jonze. Perf. Joaquin Phoenix, Amy Adams, Scarlett Johansson. Warner Bros. Pictures, 2013. Film.
  3. Victor, Bret. Bret Victor, Beast of Burden. N.p., Web.
  4. Victor, Bret. The Humane Representation of Thought. Vimeo, 2014. Web.

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