The Big Nine on Conversational AI

The Big Nine: How the Tech Titans & Their Thinking Machines Could Warp Humanity Amy Webb does a phenomenal job exploring the “thinking machines” of US’s G-MAFIA as well as China’s BAT. These two groups of technology companies are driving culture and technological growth across the globe. Amy Webb challenges us to create a better future for AI and for humanity.

Let’s get started by breaking down these two groups:


  • Google (Search)
  • Microsoft (Computer)
  • Amazon (Commerce)
  • Facebook (Social)
  • IBM (Enterprise)
  • Apple (Design)

BAT (China):

  • Baidu (Search)
  • Alibaba (Commerce)
  • Tencent (Social)

Amy breaks the book into three sections:

  1. Ghosts in the Machine
  2. Our Futures
  3. Solving the Problems

Let’s take a closer look at each of them:

Ghosts in the Machine

“whether Alexa perceives an apple the same way we do, and whether Amper’s original music is truly “original”, are really questions about how we think about thinking... understand the connection between thinking and containers for thought” (page 17).

Amazon Alexa is both a blessing and a curse for AI. On the one hand conversational AI has exploded with Alexa, Jovo, Google Assistant, Bixby, etc. On the other hand, speaking machines still fall short of mainstream expectations. We expect thinking machines when we’ve been given empty containers for thought.

“What we knew by 2011 was that AI now outperformed humans during certain thinking tasks because it could access and process massive amounts of information without succumbing to stress. AI could define stress, but it didn’t have the endocrine system to contend with” (page 39).

Natural language processing is solved by large companies such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Alibaba, Baidu and Microsoft. Rather than compete with these platforms, We should strive to leverage them to our benefit, becoming human + AI Centaurs.

“Right now, there is no other country on Earth with as much data as China, as many people as China, and as many electronics per capita” (page 77).

Data is the fuel for the coming age. The US is currently on top, driving advancements such as AlphaGo, Amazon Alexa, Google Assistant, and other forms of artificial intelligence. China is poised to surpass the US in the coming age. Voice Assistants such as TmallGenie, DuerOS & WeChat exist in China and are collecting data from the largest population on the planet.

“Right now, when you talk to your Alexa or Google Home, your voice is being recorded, parsed, and then transmitted to the cloud for a response — given the physical distance between you and the various data centers involved, it’s mind-blowing that Alexa can talk back within a second or two. As AI permeates more of our devices — in the form of smartphones with biometric sensors, security cameras that can lock onto our faces, cars that drive themselves, or precision robots capable of delivering medicine — a one- or two-second processing delay could lead to a catastrophic outcome.” (page 90)

Every day we integrate more tech with conversational AI into our everyday workflows. We must stay conscious that these devices may vary in their response times.

“Optimizing AI means nudging humans” (page 123)

Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant are not perfect. They are biased towards the data they are trained on. As a result, voice assistants do incredibly well processing and assisting some groups of individuals, while failing miserably at interacting with others. We must collectively decide if and how we bias our AI to serve humanity.

“The Ten Commandments make up an algorithm intended to create a better society for humans alive more than 5,000 years ago” (page 127).

Humans tell stories. Historically, we tell stories orally. Conversational AI has created a re-emergence of oral storytelling. The best storytellers merge the themes of ancient stories and apply them to the context & challenges of modernity.

Our Futures

“The future of AI is being built by two countries — America and China — with competing geopolitical interests, whose economies are closely intertwined, and whose leaders are often at ends with each other” (page 138)

China is beginning to dominate in the field of AI, specifically conversational AI. All three of its big tech companies, Baidu, Alibaba, and Tencent are driven by conversational AI. Only some of the G-MAFIA are choosing to adopt conversational AI. We need to stop creating a story of containment and engagement, and instead must proactively work together with China on addressing global issues.

“We don’t imagine our future selves and how autonomous systems might affect our health, relationships, and happiness (page 142)

Some weeks, I go very active on social media. With too much posting and interaction with all the social media platforms like TikTok, Instagram, Facebook, YouTube, LinkedIn & Twitter I can become short and inconsiderate of the people around me. Every Sunday, I try to disconnect entirely from technology and meditate with a notebook. Try to find ways to disconnect and maintain a healthy relationship with technology on your journey.

“in general, you’re talking more than typing” (page 192).

I’m very excited for this present moment where I spend significantly more time talking to the world around me than interacting via typing or touching. This article is 90% written by my voice. I use my thumbs occasionally to start and stop the microphone on Gboard. I may also go back and edit via typing. This is how I appear as a human + AI Centaur.

“with interoperability still a critical weak point in the West’s AI ecosystem, by 2035 we settle into a de facto system of segregation” (page 216)

Interoperability is one of my biggest concerns with the current voice infrastructure. Conversational AI is fragmented. Siri refuses to open up their doors. Google has yet to to create a command line interface tool. Unlike web, which had the open IP protocol, voice is currently built on big, fragmented ecosystems. That was until Jovo created the Voice Layer which revolutionized conversational AI.

Solving the Problems

“Asimov was a talented, prescient writer — but his laws of robotics are too general to serve as guiding principles for the future of AI. (page 239)

Isaac Asimov’s three laws of robotics:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey the orders given it by human beings except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second laws.
  4. 0. A robot may not injure humanity, or, by inaction, allow humanity to come to harm.

“choosing between containment and engagement assumes that the United States still has the same amount of power and leverage we did in the 1960s. But in 2019, America simply does not enjoy unilateral power on the global stage… China is poised to become a global leader across many different industries and fields — and not just as a manufacturer and exporter of goods designed elsewhere. If Beijing agreed to transparency, data protection, and addressing human rights, it would be in position to colead GAIA has an equal partner with the US, which could mean a realistic path toward elevating millions of Chinese people out of poverty” (page 246–247)

This is a long one. There is a path of peace. It’s laid out before us. Our only obstacles are our own destructive tendencies. The US must realize containment and engagement are no longer metaphors we can use to describe our global relationship with China. China is powerful. We must take a note from the art of emotional listening. In any moment of disagreement, the only way to move forward is together. We must seek to understand each other’s goals. Within voice technology, we need to create interoperability between US and Chinese conversational AI technologies. China has many conversationally AI platforms:

Right now we are driving a wedge between the US and China. China will surpass us. We need to build community on a global scale to ensure a better future for AI and for humanity is possible.

“AI is a part of your life, and you are part of its developmental track” (page 258).

AI is here. It is not coming. It is not on the way. AI is here. You use it everyday. Each and every time you talk to Amazon Alexa in Google Home, you are helping train the future of how humans interact with conversational artificial intelligence. Be mindful of what you say and understand the grander discussion you are taking part in.

“in the voting booth, cast ballots for those who won’t rush into regulation but who would instead take a more sophisticated approach on AI in long-term planning” (page 260).

I thought this quote is properly timed right around the primary elections in 2020. We are just completing a presidential cycle ran by Donald Trump, a man who leveraged Twitter quite heavily. We shall inevitably see future presidential candidates leverage social media and other forms of AI-driven social tools (including Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant). We must use our power of democracy to elect candidates who understand and are willing to take sophisticated approaches on AI and long-term planning.

This article was written by human + AI Centaur powered by Patrick Sweetman. Apologies for any typos or grammatical errors created by the artificial intelligence which is converting my speech to text. I made an attempt to correct all of these mistakes, but inevitably may have missed a few.

Pat "Sweets" Sweetman
CEO - Voice First
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👻 VOICE SOFTWARE CO. 👻 // #Columbus // less thumb-swiping & screen-facing. Wholistic Balance ☯️ of Midwestern Love ❤️ + Artificial Intelligence 💬