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How a Barbie doll prepares your child for the future

Mike Elgan | March 1, 2016
In the future, every computer, appliance and vehicle will have a conversational UI (just like Barbie).

The most memorable scene in the 1986 movie, Star Trek 4: The Voyage Home involved a time-traveling Scotty trying to use a computer from the 1980s. He walks up to a Macintosh Plus and says: "Computer!" When the computer doesn't respond, it occurs to Dr. McCoy that, because this is a primitive computer from the past, perhaps it needs a close-up microphone. So he hands the mouse to Scotty, who tries his voice command into the mouse.

The scene is as prescient as it is funny.

What Star Trek always got right was that the user interface of the future was conversational.

A conversational UI can take place as a back-and-forth text chat, email or spoken conversation. The difference between text bots and the virtual assistants you talk to is slight. By simply adding off-the-shelf speech recognition on one end and text-to-speech on the other, you can turn any text bot into a speech assistant.

In fact, bots are highly portable, and the companies that make them don't care where they show up.

Dennis Mortensen, the CEO and founder of a New York startup called, which makes the Amy virtual assistant for scheduling meetings, told me that the Amy virtual assistant could in the future be made available via Amazon's Echo, Apple's Siri or through some other channel. It doesn't matter. While today the Amy is an email-based virtual assistant that lives in the cloud, it could in the future be conversed with by phone, text, in a social network or any other space where a conversation could take place.

Mortensen also said recently that he believes bots would soon replace apps.

Rise of the conversational UI

The idea that chat bots and virtual assistants that we can talk to would replace apps is as alien to us now as today's computing scene would have appeared 10 years ago.

For example, if I told you in 2006 that in 10 years the mobile web would be faster and more feature rich than the version of the web you get on the desktop, it would have made no sense. (Refresher: This is what phones were like in 2006.) If I told you in 2006 that Apple would be the world's leading phone maker, most valuable company and was working on a car; that Google would be delivering Internet access via balloon; that Facebook's CEO was the world's fourth richest person; that stringing together little cartoon icons would become a major form of social interaction; or that everyone can stream live video globally but it's too banal for most people to bother with -- you would have thought I was nuts.


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