The end of small talk is coming

What do we talk about now?
What do we talk about now?
Image: Franck Robichon/EPA
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

What types of conversation persist when it’s just bots talking to each other?

That may sounds like an abstract, farfetched question. But consider Google’s announcement today of its new Allo chat app. Google’s Erik Kay explained how users can ask the app to perform simple tasks like making restaurant reservations. In addition:

It can also analyze text and images to compose prewritten personalized replies informed by earlier conversations. In a stage demonstration, Allo was able to identify a picture of a dog as a Bernese mountain dog and a dish at an Italian restaurant as clam linguine. “There’s a lot of complex technology at work here to help you say something as simple as, ‘I love linguine,’” said Kay.

Image: Google

It’s hard not to conclude that we will see the birth of a new form of communication: automated small talk between our chat bots. For example, you take a photo of a linguine dinner, and Google’s artificial intelligence knows that one of your friends likes linguine and sends her that photo. Her Google chat bot recognizes the photo as clam linguine and then replies to you on her behalf, “I love linguine.” Which of course is filed away in the Google AI to inform future such automated exchanges.

Presumably humans will still have to press “send” on the messages that go back and forth between them. But it does seem that, at the intersection of artificial intelligence and chat bots, we’ll see computers become extremely adept at small talk. Perhaps even better than humans.

What about discussions of logistics, a source of endless friction between humans everywhere? There’s a scenario where a lot of that falls away and we instead are yelling at our Amazon Echo things like, “Alexa, sort out vacation plans with my wife to Paris between Aug 13 and Aug 21 with our daughter but not our son, who will be traveling separately.” The Amazon AI might then parse your wife’s calendar and travel history and come up with an itinerary that it sends to you both, requesting final permission to book the flights and reserve the hotel rooms.

There’s an element of this vision of the near future that’s very welcome, including getting an all-knowing personal assistant for the modest price of a Google smartphone or an Amazon intelligent speaker.

But what will we talk about with each other when small talk and conversations about logistics fall away?

Books? Philosophy? Our feelings?

Hopefully we won’t just be talking about our bots.