Out With the GUI. In with the Conversational UI.

Person Talking to SmartphoneThe Graphical User Interface (GUI) has dominated user-facing computer applications for the past three decades. As revolutionary as the GUI might once have been, it has its shortcomings. Application complexity increases almost as quickly as computer processing power. Mobile devices force application designers to squeeze more and more functionality into ever diminishing screen space.

So what comes next? A few weeks ago, Ron Kaplan of Nuance Communications wrote an article for Wired on the Conversational User Interface, or “CUI.” What Kaplan describes is a transition toward intelligent applications that human users can talk to in order to get things done. The basic technologies to enable this transition are already in place. We may soon be witnesses to the tipping point where conversational user interfaces replace GUIs and become the norm.

Kaplan points at mobile personal assistants such as Apple’s Siri and Samsung’s S-Voice and describes them as primitive first-generation CUIs. These apps can certainly help us with simple tasks, but the scope of their comprehension and helpfulness is limited. New, more advanced generations of intelligent conversational agents are just around the corner, Kaplan predicts, and their capabilities will far exceed those of today’s speech recognition apps.

Kaplan suggests that as machine learning advances, perhaps along the lines of the framework provided by DeepQA research, conversational virtual agents will graduate from simply understanding what we’re saying, to actually grasping our intent. Such a sophisticated CUI will be able to show us the exact movie we want to see, even when we can’t remember the movie title or the name of the leading actress. It will also understand hypothetical objects and future events, enabling it to respond to instructions such as “Let me know when I’m close to a good Italian restaurant, but not a major chain.”

The possibilities for intelligent virtual agents, just one form of future Conversational User Interfaces, are limitless. It only remains to be seen how quickly this important transformation will occur.

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