When I Bryan Rieger use the term intelligent agents, almost in passing, to describe the current reality of what artificial intelligence looks like today, it really struck a chord with me. Despite all the hype and all the investment I’m not even close to being convinced about Artificail Intelligence. An intelligent agent however is achieveable and perhaps the best that we can hope for today. The kind of Artificial Intelligence that is sold to us is pure hype. What we have at the moment is single purpose code. AlphaGo is not intelligence, it’s an algorithm that’s been refined and worked on for years that only plays the game Go. It can’t play chess because ut can’t think beyond Go. It can’t respond to other stimuli or interact with you in any way. It’s not going to take your job, truth is it can’t even make your coffee.
When I listen to people talk about artificial intelligence I cringe. Their analogies and examples require a level of abstraction that requires you to leave your intelligence at the door. AI is an attempt to recreate thought, recreate how our brains work, not the other way around because our brains aren’t like computers. A computer requires something to be coded and encoded and so that there’s a distance between the information in the code and reality. The code is a construct of reality and it will remain that way for a long time.
But when Bryan mentioned this idea of Intelligent Agents it really got me thinking. Rather than these fanciful imaginations of AI that resemble 1950s Science Fiction and posit something like Silicon lifeforms, what if we focussed on the practical? An Intelligent Agent would be incredibly helpful. Having the computer perform tasks in our digital space could actually be life changing. I’m not even thinking about physical tasks like making coffee or ironing shirts, but the ability to use technology to bridge what’s in your brain and bringing it into reality.
At this point I want to mention Bret Victor’s The Humane Representation of Thought. One of the really interesting concepts in this talk was the idea of creation via conversation.
“I’m talking about improvising and sketching dynamic models in seconds, not hours or weeks, as part of the real-time give and take of a conversation.”
Bret talks about this in terms of bringing computational models and functions into forms beyond the visual and symbolic, which is quite forward thinking. That’s incredibly interesting, but the idea of creation through conversation made an impact on me. What if through the process of talking about an idea, you were able to construct it? What if you were able to develop tools and systems not through abstraction and code, but through conversation?
So I started to think about the emerging chat bot interface (something that Ben Werdmuller covers incredibly well) and how that could be combined with an intelligent agent to get things done. What if instead of asking a bot simple tasks like fetch, you could actually be developing and writing software? Developing and writing software without having to learn to code. What if instead of needing to learn a language you learnt the grammar of programming. The way that you can put things together, to string ideas together and do that in a natural language which the Intelligent Agent would be able to translate that into actual coded products.
When I start talking about the kinds of tools that I want — for example if I want to create an app for my iPhone which pushes a selected photo to Facebook, Flickr, iCloud and Dropbox simultaneously – I could make that happen via a conversation with a chat bot. A set of commands and parameters I answer as questions from the Bot, would be all I needed to create that app.
If you could created a grammar for an Intelligent Agent to translate text to code, a chat bot to provide and interface and utilise the power of APIs – anyone could easily create their own apps. To start with this would work great just text (anyone from Australia or Scotland will understand the infuriating nature of voice recognition) but it could easily become much more complex and powerful. Expanding the agents grammar, writing across different languages and platforms would extend it’s usefulness. You could even have a conversation with multiple Agents — each dealing with different aspects of the build — running the AWS services, setting up databases, designing a front end.
The idea of Intelligent Agents working with us in our digital environments would be empowering to people, as opposed to our subservient role in the projected AI driven robot future. Democratising the ability to code, write applications and manipulate data would be welcoming back to the idea of digital being a kind of protean entity. If the digital became malleable we could reform it into what we need it to be, we could take our data and turn it into something else, something that tends to be lost in proprietary formats and code that is written by only a select few.
This kind of Intelligent Agent could revolutionise the world and I think we’re getting closer to being able to do that. To get to a point where we can actually create customised systems for ourselves would be incredibly empowering because digital technology has for a long time been something that’s done to us. Sometimes it’s done for us but very rarely done with us.
I think this, Intelligent Agents, are a massive opportunity we need to explore because it could change everything. Artificial Intelligence as it stands is just the status quo, replicating the same power structures and with the same lack of respect to our humanity. Intelligent Agents though would people to create their own real world solution. It could provide regular people with the agency to build their own rather digital solutions and not be reliant on the elites in Silicon Valley, or for that matter the elites of the western world.
Rather than the future of slavery, joblessness and insecurity that Artificial Intelligence represents, what about the autonomy, agency and empowerment we could gain from our Intelligent Agents?
I’m starting to think that there’s an interesting indie ed-tech project in here. Bots + APIs + DooO = Apps of ones Own.