Evolution’s Master Technology Enabler: Conversation

James L. McQuivey
James L. McQuivey
Vice President, Principal Analyst
July 9, 2018

Welcome to the final post in a four-part series I have been working on for the past few months. This series summarizes something I call the four basic forces of consumer behavior: emotion, tools, coordination, and conversation. These forces have compelled consumers to build their consumer tech stacks, the devices and software services that they use to expertly navigate the world. The purpose of these posts is to elaborate on the model and explain why understanding the forces behind our behaviors teaches us what technology means rather than simply describing what it does. Meaning comes from fundamental parts of us that have evolved over millions of years, parts that cause us to desire and prioritize certain actions and interactions. Technology is the fruit of those forces and is dependent on them to thrive. To catch up on the series, you can go back to the first post, where I introduce the model and focus on emotion, a key force of the four that motivates our use of the other forces. In the second post, I describe how tool use is not just a fact of human experience but a driver of it, accelerated by the consumer technology revolution we are currently in. In the most recent post, I describe the four forces model in some depth and then explain the third of the four evolved basic forces, task coordination.

In today’s post, I describe the fourth and final force, one that is a necessary connector of all the others: conversation. Conversation is cool right now. No doubt you’ve heard the lingo spread — we talk about conversational marketing, conversational interfaces, the era of conversation. Companies are investing in chatbots; Alexa is in millions of homes; vendors like iAdvize are blending human conversation with machine-enabled intelligence. But to see conversation as an outcome of technology is to get it exactly backward — as if today’s technology was creating conversations when it is actually the other way around.

Conversations made all of modern life possible. Specifically, our species’ capacity for language enabled our capacity for sociality, which further enabled our capacity for culture. These three skills — language, sociality, and culture — are woven from the same fabric: conversation. In saying this, I’m borrowing from various academic disciplines but also modifying their output a tad. Some talk about the importance of symbolic thought, others focus on the importance of shared learning, and still others emphasize the importance of cultural semiotics. I’m unifying all of these and other theories into a single cluster under the heading of conversation.

The power of conversation cannot be overstated. Conversation creates action at a distance. By arranging letters or phonemes into words, then words into grammatical sentences, I can reliably conjure up perceptions inside your head. Those perceptions can be simple or complex; they can stimulate feelings, conjure up images, even motivate you to action. The initiator of a conversation doesn’t have to be in the same room or even in the same time, as when we feel spoken to by a writer from a prior century.

The amazing thing is that we are wired for this; we evolved to do it. That’s why our children learn to engage in this process of conversation even before they speak, exchanging gestures and actions until they add words and ultimately nuanced oratory to their conversational toolkits. It is this prewiring for conversation that makes our modern life possible. The fact that we all share it means that we can exchange ideas quickly, exploring them, expanding them, and refining them. Without the ability to rapidly test and prototype our ideas with other minds, we would not be able to imagine new things and make them real as quickly, if at all.

Conversation is a magic tool that scales rapidly. Generate a piece of information worth having a conversation about, and it will spread as quickly as current technology allows. Today, that means at the speed of the Internet, of social media, of Twitter, and of WeChat. And this is why our current moment in time is so powerful and portentous: Our urge to converse got us here, but it’s also about to multiply our ideas beyond today’s technology. Conversations through technology drive demand for things like Facebook, but it’s conversations about technology that then stimulate the development of the next technologies and services we will add to our growing tech stack. Nobody buys a Fitbit without first having had multiple conversations about it, even if those conversations are virtual. Nobody will use augmented reality without having multiple conversations about it, even if many of those conversations are with artificially intelligent agents.

Conversation enables technology, accelerates technology, and guides the next round of technology. This has always been true, even if it has never moved as swiftly as it now does. The new wrinkle is the bit implied by the above example: We are about to enter an era in which conversations will increasingly happen with artificially intelligent agents. For as long as humans have existed, conversation was dependent on finding a coincidence of conversational needs: We depended on available conversation partners who could imagine at our level, who had time to converse, and were motivated to wade in our idea stream with us. Literacy expanded our conversations by breaking down the simultaneity of that dependency, but artificial intelligence will completely unbind our conversational capacity, giving us 24/7 access to minds that contain infinite information and infinite patience to identify our level of conversation and guide us through our own thoughts so that we can make them better.

If the value of this higher level of AI conversation feels uncertain to you, you are not alone. Most of today’s conversation about conversation focuses on creating chatbots or agents that can answer your known questions efficiently, like clicking a menu option with your voice. That’s a good start, though as I wrote about in my book Digital Disruption, this is a baby step in any technology’s adoption, where we design and adopt technologies that do old things in new ways. The next level of conversation, going beyond adoption to internalization, involves using the actual power of conversation with AI not just to coordinate tasks efficiently but to challenge us to think differently about the conversation itself, to stimulate our minds to think loftier, more interesting, more intriguing thoughts, thoughts that will change us — and that will also change our machine intelligence conversation partners, creating an accelerated engine for generating still-newer thoughts.

We can see this future clearly because we have good data on the past. In the report where we first introduced the four forces earlier this year, we review 20 years of data collected from millions of people in 20 countries. We see the role of conversation expanding rapidly. In the year 2000, for baseline comparison, just 43% of US households used email. A paltry 8% used online chat. Then came AOL Instant Messenger, SMS texting, and emoticons. It has always been conversation that attracted the largest number of interested users to the technology platforms we depend on. That’s why, every day, Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat are each used by about 4 in 10 of all online 18-to-29-year-olds in the US. Every day. A rising number are using smart speakers like Amazon’s Echo devices — 14% of online adults today, rising to nearly half of homes by 2022. But we don’t have to wait for smart speakers to begin conversing with robots: 37% of US online adults have used a virtual agent or chatbot for customer service in the past 12 months, and nearly three-quarters of them were satisfied with their experience.

Make sure you are a part of the conversation — the conversation about technology, sure, but ultimately the conversation with technology. Some people are afraid to, while others are racing ahead of the pack, eager to join the robot revolution. In an upcoming report, I will share brand-new data that shows very clearly that those who are more future-ready and future-fit have more than just a technology advantage over the rest of us. I’ll have that report out soon; stay tuned for more details, but in the meantime, have conversations on this topic: What does it take to be ready to converse with, partner with, machines?

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James McQuivey, Ph.D. is VP and principal analyst at Forrester. After many years of conversations about technology, he wrote the book Digital Disruption: Unleashing the Next Wave of Innovation, which helps companies understand how to use digital tools to build closer relationships with customers. He has eight Amazon Echos and one Google Home device, uses OK Google on his phone, owns a Jibo, and has a Segway Loomo coming in August. He is definitely ready to talk to robots.

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