Chatbots the next "epoch of tech"

Uber's Chris Messina argues conversational computing is the next era in technology

It's not just hype  chatbots and voice assistants are the future of computing. 

That's according to Chris Messina, Uber's lead on developer experience  and the tech luminary behind Twitter's introduction of the hashtag. 

Speaking at Comptel's Nexterday North, Messina walked through five eras of computing history, looking back at four historical platform epochs: Arpanet and the birth of the internet, Windows and enterprise as a platform, the iPhone and shift to truly personal computing, and Facebook and social platforms. 

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He then argued that we're entering the fifth epoch, "conversation as a platform". 

There are two billion people online today, with billions more joining us in the next two decades, Messina said. "What kind of computing device are they going to have when they start?" he asked. "More like the PC? More like the smartphone? Or more like a room computer or a car OS that you just talk to and have a conversation with?"

That's partially because it's so easy to interact via talking. "Conversation is the natural way we interact with the world," he said. "Kids talk to anything, you can't shut them up."

This new era of computing is made possible by a confluence of technologies, from cognitive computing to deep learning, computer vision and text to speech. "Computers are starting to do things that we used to be only able to do," he said. 

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And that means bots are the new apps when it comes to e-commerce. "It's one four-letter word replacing another one, but the idea of the app that's come out of the desktop era doesn't make much sense in the mobile era."

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That's why Uber has worked to integrate with Facebook's Messenger bots, letting users book a car without even having the Uber app installed. 

That's only the beginning, he said, pointing to the use of bots to share news, act as personal assistants, and even extend the narratives of TV shows and games. 

His argument for conversational computing was delivered alongside a heavy dose of McLuhanism  Messina held a well-read copy of the Canadian communications academic's book throughout his talk at the Helsinki conference with a call to consider how the medium we use to communicate affects what we say. (Or as Marshall McLuhan famously put it, "the medium is the message.")

Messina said: "Increasingly, as we shape our conversation and messaging platforms, they, in turn, shape us."

And that means some uses for chatbots and conversational AIs haven't even occurred to us yet. "There's going to be some kids in high school who are going... to use this stuff in a way that we can't even imagine yet," he added.

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