Questioning the hunt for one-shot answers

My father is turning 67 in a few days. And despite his first-born son, ahem, working during the day as 3D product support, and during the night on a personal blog, he couldn’t tell you how to use the Internet beyond pecking in the letters for to watch the music video for Skid Row’s 18 And Life.

But, to my surprise, when he was gifted an Alexa last Christmas, he found a new way to rock out.

My one year nephew, AJ, isn’t far off either. He barely knows how to speak but he can certainly yell “Alexa” while shaking the hockey puck shaped device in his tiny baby hands. And, yes, it is adorable.

The future is here. We’re talking to robots. And, as James Vlahos writes in this month’s Wired magazine, “it’s going to upend our relationship with information”. Because we want answers and we wasn’t them now. We don’t want to rifle through pages of links. We want the undeniable facts. As always, we want the speed.

But what becomes more interesting is the other part of the equation, the question. You’d think we would need to train ourselves to talk to robots, but they are already a few steps ahead. Before Amazon released the Echo, William Tunstall-Pedoe developed True Knowledge - a website offering one-shot answers. Vlahos explained in Wired:

Most exciting for Tunstall-Pedoe, True Knowledge could handle questions who answers were not explicitly spelled out beforehand. Imagine somebody asking, “Is a bat a bird?” Because the ontology had bats sorted into a subgroup under “mammals” and birds were located elsewhere, the system could correctly reason that bats are not birds.”

True Knowledge was getting smart, and in pitches to investors, Tunstall-Pedoe liked to thumb his nose at the competition. For instance, he’d Google “Is Madonna single?” The search engine’s shallow understanding was obvious when it returned the link “Unreleased Madonna single slips onto Net.” True Knowledge, meanwhile, knew from the way the question was phrased that “single” was being used as an adjective, not a noun, and that it was defined as an absence of romantic connections. So, seeing that Madonna and Guy Ritchie were connected “at the time” by an is married to link, the system more helpfully answered that, no, Madonna was not single.

But can technology always grow to understand what we’re asking? Are there limits to the one-shot answer, or is it that we’re already living in a miscommunication world? Is there a single, correct answer for when to say “I love you” or how to negotiate a salary?

Life can feel messy but could there be a one-shot answer after all?