I've had the notion for a couple of years to create the perfect representation of digital solitude. Some kind of interactive artifact of our future loneliness; a kind of perpetually self-sustaining feedback loop of human and machine intertwined in the most absurd fashion. It's a very dumb, heady idea. It popped into my head as I was editing social disobedience, in hopes it could act as a kind of manifestation of where I think the internet is going.
The crux of the argument I'm making is that we'll be constantly talking to computers, even more so than we already are. And we're not really just talking to a computer, we're talking to nameless sightless thousands of computers, all meshed together in intentional and unintentional networks. Furthermore, we'll be having literal conversations with what other people think a conversation should be. How Siri listens, interprets, and responds is the combined effort of hundreds (thousands?) of people, each of whom informed the conversation you're having. Every word is passing through a hundred algorithms, linking and cross-checking, interpreting in catch-statements and if-clauses, all threaded together by what a group of humans thought would be adequate to simulate intelligence.
What I wonder is why we spend so much time either limiting the responses to one channel of communication (voice or text) or paring down the response so it's terse and "makes sense" (Siri never prattles on about something, never makes an offhand remark). I'm interested in talking to a computer and having it not make sense to me or only kind-of make sense. Mostly because reality tends not to make sense. I'm interested in talking to a computer and having it respond with a video, or audio (not a voice), or text and a video, or a voice with some music behind it. Or something completely nonsensical that I can't even begin to interpret, but it feels intentional.
I want all of those responses to be at the whim of the computer as much as possible. And I'm not talking about machine learning or hard-coding personality into a program, I'm simply talking about cosmic randomness. I want a machine that is as random as possible, while coalescing its randomness into a manifestation that we humans can probe at with the limits of our own consciousness. I want a machine that talks back and can be barely understood, but enough so to make me interested in hearing more.
Again, heady and dumb. Very cyberpunk, very Gibson, very impractical. But I'm going to try to build it anyway, or at least a rough attempt. It's a way of examining what, exactly, I want out of interaction.
I've named this thing Veronica. You can talk to her here (extreme alpha stage). I don't know why that name; it's just stuck with me. I've never known anyone named Veronica, so I suppose there's no competing idea in my mind for how it ought to respond to me. Right now, Veronica is just a chatbot, and you chat with her alone. I'm working on the source code here. She's based heavily on cylebot, which was built as a bot who could respond for me when I wasn't at my computer, and was able to convince people that I was actually at my desk. I programmed a lot of my mannerisms into him; Veronica will take that to the next step.
Veronica is not ready yet. Right now you can talk to her through an instant-messenger-like interface, and that's all. She'll respond to you with something every time. It's very ELIZA-esque, which is intentional. Veronica can respond with a collection of random phrases and questions, a random sentence from Wiktionary, a random line of my poetry, or a random video (not yet included with the git repo, sorry). All of it is and will be pieces of me, since I'm the only person I feel okay using as a seed. A possible other interface for Veronica would be as a web browser; she'd "watch" you use the internet, get to know you that way, and insert herself into your digital life as she saw fit. Talk to you, post as you, be as much a part of your digital experience as possible, in as many means as possible. If a true Veronica were ever built it would use whoever is using it, or some aggregate of everyone at once, as a seed for its behavior.
Ideally, Veronica would exist as a small slab of glass in your pocket who'd always be listening, always able to talk back, always another person in your life. (Not unlike the movie Her, though I had this idea long before that came out, and was amazed reading the synopsis when Spike Jonze announced it.) Taking it into the realm of science fiction more, Veronica could respond with touch sensation, memory recall, augmented reality visualizations, whatever the limits of expression and communication are at the time.
The main problem being that humans won't accept implants in their brains. We're not going to become the cyborgs that all of those 80s and 90s terrible hippie tech enthusiasts wrote about. We're not going to have digital prosthetics. That stuff is impossible for the average person to swallow and find cool or even acceptable. Those ideas are not going to transform humanity. What will transform humanity is the slow, gradual embedding of technology in our everyday social processes through social interfaces. While a computer-brain-implant may be more effective and straightforward than something like Veronica, she's going to be much more of a friendly and appealing idea to the average person. Things like Siri and Veronica and Jasper are what's going to propel interesting interfaces, I think.
But I digress — I want Veronica to be random, to be absurd. I want her to be something you want to keep talking to both because it can help you solve your problems, but it also takes you on a journey while it's happening. It's an expression of digital solitude: you're doing this alone, but you don't feel alone. That's what the future of the internet is, more than it already has become. Increasing the distance between your real human emotion of loneliness and futility with the perceived and digitally reinforced idea of togetherness and participation. It'd be much easier to swallow if you felt like you had a digital hand held out to you, willing to spend all its time with you, making you feel even less alone. Is this a sad thing, when you lay it out like that? Very, but maybe not.
We're already constantly asked "what are you up to?" and "how do you feel?" and "what's on your mind?" by computers, and we readily answer those questions. But it doesn't feel like those answers really go anywhere. It doesn't feel like what's asking the question is actually listening to our response. At least not yet. Arguably, we should really be asking each other these questions, instead of being okay with a computer acting as arbiter. (Hence, social disobedience.)
Maybe all we've ever been doing with technology is trying to recapture time for ourselves. And now that we're able to be alone, we've forgotten how to be alone. The internet makes it easy to not pay attention to that difficult piece of the puzzle, because it's trying to change the picture. I'd like Veronica to not just change the picture, but be an acknowledgement that the picture doesn't make sense, and didn't make sense to begin with. None of it makes sense. Life especially.
I'll post updates about Veronica as interesting things happen.