August 9, 2017
Communication – past, present and future
by Paul Carroll
I recently attended a lecture by a Stanford professor in which he offered an interesting take on the history of communication, as a way of shaking us out of our tendency toward “presentism”—the deep-rooted feeling that things have always been as they are now and, thus, will continue just as they are now.
He said we humans started speaking about 50,000 years ago and began writing about 5,000 years ago, but only passed the point of 50% literacy for the world’s population probably during World War II. Look what’s happened since. Not only has adult literacy increased to 85%, but about half the world owns a smartphone, with access, via Wikipedia, to basically all the information ever collected into an encyclopedia. Texting, Twitter and other new forms of communication allow for extraordinary, instant levels of connection. Artificial intelligence is letting us communicate with computers in ways once reserved for human-to-human conversations.
So, are we done with progress? I mean, how much further can we go?
A long ways, it seems.
For instance, the professor said that, before long, we’ll go beyond communicating with chatbots—our chatbots will converse with other chatbots—and I’m sure he’s right. I could actually take his claim back almost 20 years, to when I sometimes moderated a panel at an internet-related conference at the Kellogg School of Business at Northwestern University (my alma mater). A general partner at Sequoia Capital told us once that, in his quest to stay on the cutting edge, he had a voice-activated cellphone in his car, as well as voice-activated features for the car’s controls. A random noise prompted the car to say, “I’m sorry, I didn’t understand you.” To which the phone replied, to which the car replied, to which…. “How do you make your phone and your car stop talking to each other?” the Sequoia partner asked.
Much more recently, we’ve all seen stories about all the bots on social media that will like or follow people to try to influence the dialogue, will generate responses, etc. Two bots even recently tried to prank each other, generating 15 messages a second for hours on end.
I don’t have a clue where this all ends, but I am pretty well scared out of any tendency toward “presentism” and hope you are, too.