Talking with robots

Facebook held its annual developer conference earlier this week, where executives discussed their vision for the company’s future and Facebook’s newest products and developments. Among these developments were new “bots” that users can converse with on the Messenger app; companies such as ShopSpring and CNN have created bots to simplify the process of buying products, working with customer service and choosing what news articles to read. The intention is that the bots make you feel like you are talking to a human.

Curious about how these bots could actually improve my life, I started conversations with the five bots on my menu screen. I hoped for actual conversation to flow, but the bots’ language was stilted, even though their grammar itself was perfect.

Correct grammar and a strong command of the English language are not binary: neither grammatical nor linguistic decision can be classified as either “right” or “wrong.” This can lead to bots sounding “fake,” even if they follow all grammatical rules. As a copy editor, my role is to ensure that articles follow correct grammatical protocol and adhere to AP and The Daily Californian’s style. This means that reviewing articles requires more than just a cursory scan of whether every sentence is “correct.” Rather, articles must continue to flow smoothly and coherently after we make corrections.

For bots, having correct grammar is not equivalent to sounding like a human being. The beauty of language, in fact, is that it is difficult to pinpoint exactly why a sentence “sounds good” — why human-crafted writing seems more genuine. While having a bot tell me the weather every morning and evening is certainly convenient, I still prefer that that message be relayed in a less stilted manner.

Maybe there will be a day when artificial intelligence research improves to the point that bots can communicate with humans with the speed and accuracy of a computer yet the amiableness of an actual human being. But for now, I’ll stick with shopping for clothes and reading the news on my own.

Contact Nikhil Dilip at [email protected].