Telepathy - making computers foretell
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #32

In interpersonal communication a large amount of information is transmitted through tiny facial expressions and vocal inflections. Important messages are only implied, and transcripts would reveal little. If computers could understand similar implied instructions, then interacting with them would be much easier, and not just for the humans.

The better people know one another, the more they communicate by a sort of telepathy where much is left unsaid and intricate conversations appear incomprehensible to strangers. Gaps are left in the logical flow of communication, which proceeds successfully because those gaps are filled based on an understanding of the person talking, and the topic of discussion. Essentially what happens is that both participants have experienced similar conversations in the past, and half the time they know what to expect. So they don't bother to make it explicit. Gaps in communication are filled in from memories of past communication.

Computers do have a memory of past communication. Practically though, they are amnesiac. They forget most of the messages, and more importantly, they forget the contexts in which users do things. Most computers' communication memories are limited to a list of previously used commands. This is like your telepathic partner remembering your past fifty sentences, but nothing of your general behaviour and thought processes as expressed in ordinary conversation. To get anything across to such a person, you would have to spell it out completely, every time. This is what most users do with their dumb machines.

Decent programs in decent operating environments allow users to customize the interface, the default behaviour, and settings for different commands. Though it is remembered afterwards, this customization is explicit and manual. Imagine a 'human customization session', where you tell your colleagues that when you say something is not bad, you mean it's pretty good, that when you exaggerate you're being sarcastic and are not to be taken seriously. Imagine repeated human customization sessions with different people, to adapt them to your changing tastes and preferences. You wouldn't have much time left for anything else.

Fortunately humans 'customize' themselves and recognize patterns in your behaviour automatically. Computers could do the same in many ways. To begin with, they could remember not just what you do, but how you do it. To remember the context of a command, and how often you use it. Computers could change their responses to your instructions depending on what you're working on, and what you just did, by predicting what you're about to do. Of course, artificially intelligent computers tend to do stupid and unexpected things, so there will have to be checks on the extent of their predictions.

Once computers can understand what need not be explicit in ordinary interfaces based on the keyboard, mouse and monitor, they could extend their telepathic behaviour to other sensory devices. In the near future, inexpensive digital cameras and voice recognition systems will be widespread. Computers should use them not just for security and home entertainment, but to get closer to understanding inflections of the face and the voice.

Eventually computers, machines though they may be, will learn to adapt automatically to patterns in human behaviour. This will bring them some of the enormous flexibility of analogue life forms, and may even improve communication between otherwise incompatible machines. It will definitely make a vast difference to their users. Cyberspace will become a truly personalized experience.

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