Chatbots have become commonplace and everyday people use them for communication and other tasks including customer service. When chatbots came around, there was hype about their transformational effect on all areas of human socialization and this continues in 2020.

From Alexa to Meena from Google, AI assistants are becoming important for everyday life. Websites have customer service chatbots which assist human agents in handling communication round the clock.

Google’s investment in Meena is only one of many efforts. The idea is that by making voice assistants better at conversation, people will be more likely to integrate them into their lives, buying and using smart products.

The scientists behind Meena built the chatbot to be responsive to people’s messages, to stay on topic, and to behave as much like another human being as possible. To reach those goals, Meena was built as an open-domain chatbot. Unlike voice assistants¹ such as Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa, Meena can theoretically talk about anything, not just the topics already programmed into it.

A recent study found that people are more likely to trust a voice AI that can mimic them. Combining chatbot AI and audio cues to imitate the speaker should make for a voice assistant people are very comfortable with.

Even with their current limitations, voice assistants have already been shown to reduce the loneliness of older people. Google is not likely to start integrating Meena into Google Assistant without some more work on how it could be used, but Meena’s model could help future variations of the voice assistant converse more like humans.

Overview of Chatbots and Google Meena

Customer service is the number one use of chatbots in 2020 alone. These narrow-function chatbots are called closed-domain chatbots. Meena is an example of an open-domain chatbot — one designed to converse on any topic that can function as an advisor.

An open-domain chatbot needs the knowledge and capabilities of thousands of closed domain chatbots² combined. Google unveiled an open-domain, #neuralnetwork-powered chatbot called Meena, and claimed that it’s the best chatbot ever created. There’s good reason to believe this claim is true.

Meena is based on new technology, old technology, new approaches and mind-blowing quantities of data. Researchers fed Meena 341 gigabytes of social media conversation from public social media posts³. It has 2.6 billion parameters — far more than other leading #chatbots. The dataset is filtered through, among other things, an algorithm that removes offensive content.

Measuring Chatbot Intelligence

The conversational intelligence of chatbots is impressive to say the least and Google’s Meena seems to have passed this test in 2020 but more refining needs to be done. Google has invented a new metric to keep Meena from going off the conversational rails, as most chatbots have traditionally done.

It’s called the Sensibleness and Specificity Average metric, and it judges whether each word makes sense within the context of the whole thread of conversation, rather than as an isolated response to the previous user input.

Conversational chatbots⁴ have been around for decades. They rely on tricks, such as generic vagueness in response to sentences they don’t understand.

When someone says something to a chatbot that it does not understand, it’s called perplexity. So part of the parlor trick with conversational agents is the graceful handling of perplexity.

Meena’s specialty is the minimization of perplexity itself, rather than focusing on how to convincingly hide the perplexity with general responses.

What is Sensibleness and Specificity Average?

The concept of SSA is critical to measure the performance and intelligence of bots. #SSA helps to maintain answers in a conversation and makes sure that they are relevant and understandable.

Sensibleness and Specificity Average ranks the conversation by evaluating the static performance mixed with genuine interaction. The performance results are based on the percentage of turns counted as relevant or sensible.

SSA tool give a score of 79% to Meena, Pandora Bots AI Agents, Mitsuku got 56%, Microsoft’s Mandarin Chinese Chinese speaking XiaoIce got 31%, while human got 86%.

Why do Chatbots fail?

Microsoft unveiled a chatbot called Tay, which was designed to absorb the language of the people who interacted with Tay on Twitter. Within 24 hours, trolls flooded Tay with the language of racism and misogyny. This did not end well.

This leads to an important question: Why do chatbots fail?

Microsoft then introduced Tay by the success of its Chinese-language Xiaoice chatbot and which has more than 660 million users. As with Tay, Xiaoice was equipped with the capacity to parrot social media chatter as a shortcut to natural language responses. The difference is that Chinese social nets are censored by the Chinese government, so the input came pre-sanitized.

Google appears to be trying to avoid the dark alleys of Tay and Xiaoice, and instead create a chatbot that is interesting, useful, enjoyable and even enlightening.

How Google Meena will change our Social Lives

General purpose virtual assistants have been a game changer and Meena assistant from Google is setting the example. One of the most culture-shifting technologies introduced in the past decade is the general-purpose virtual assistant. This was kicked into high gear with the mainstreaming of the smart speaker.

The most popular virtual assistants, including Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, cannot hold general conversations. They can reliably set a timer, turn off the smart lights and tell you the weather. But if you ask them something beyond their narrow #programming, they will tell you they do not know. And some of them offer a small repertoire of canned, prefabricated quips and humorous responses.

#Googlemeena is designed to converse more intelligently. Instead of tricking you with clever ways to answer questions it does not understand, it aims to actually understand the questions. Meena maintains the context of those conversations and it is designed to be creative.

Chatbots into the Future

There is no doubt that AI assistants offer value to our society and with more advancements in technology, there is optimism about progressive improvements in this area. AI assistants that are capable of holding human-like conversations might become an essential part of human life, as they could provide moral or emotional support to their owners.

Amazon introduced a feature called Conversations that packages voice application suggestions in conversational multi-turn dialogue. It was called the holy grail of voice science and truly lived to the hype. This points to a new direction of chatbots where intelligent systems will augment humans with technology by boosting efficiency.

Works Cited

¹Voice Assistants, ²Domain Chatbots, ³Social Media Posts, ⁴Conversational Chatbots, ⁵Sensibleness and Specificity Average, ⁶Xiaoice Chatbot, ⁷Smart Speaker, ⁸General Conversations