Changing the Game: Creating Intelligent, Conversational Interfaces

My dad got me my first computer for Christmas when I was 11 years old. It was a Texas Instruments 99-4a. He must have gotten it second hand because it had no box or any form of storage like a tape drive.

But that didn’t stop me. I had been obsessed with the movie War Games, so my first program on the TI was designed to replicate the computer in the movie which uttered the famous line “shall we play a game.”

My program gave static responses to a huge variety of programmed questions, and mostly followed the script from the movie. In other words, it was not very good and was easily tricked, but it still blew the minds of friends and family alike. When I got them to type questions and carry on a simple dialog with the T1, they thought I’d coded the computer to speak to them naturally. Most so-called “conversational” interfaces at the time used tremendous amounts of statically coded question/response approaches. And like my program, they simply weren’t very good.

Thirty years later, computers are finally able to carry on a real conversation.

My kids and I play a game in the car, which is to try to trick Siri with silly questions. I can always get them rollicking with laughter by throwing crazy accents at Siri and carrying on escalating silly conversations. “Siri, why don’t you love me?”, “How dare you speak to me in that tone of voice”, or “What kind of fool do you take me for?”. Siri often comes up with witty responses and occasionally surprises us.

But other than Siri and a small handful of others (Google Home, Cortana, etc), there are surprisingly few convincing conversational bots.

The rise of messaging apps, and the conversational bots which have followed, have given us a tremendous number of bots which are impressively bad at natural language conversation. They do OK with canned responses, but try to have a semi-unstructured conversation to get them to do something and the experience tends to be poor, frustrating and decidedly non-human.

Why is it that computers can think like us and program like us – but they can’t communicate like us?
At Cisco, we have been at the forefront of the messaging revolution with Cisco Spark, and have been seeing a boom in conversational bots for all kinds of purposes. We have also seen immense interest from our customer care customers, who see bots (rightly so) as the evolution of multiple choice interactive voice response (IVR) systems.

We realized that to really enable our customers to have more natural, conversational interactions in our enterprise collaboration tools, we’d have to do more for them, and do more of the heavy lifting.

So that’s why today, we are announcing the intent to acquire a company called MindMeld. MindMeld realized this same problem and has been at the forefront of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) research on creating lifelike, convincing conversational interfaces. Creating a high-quality conversational interface requires six distinct types of ML, including Natural Language Processing, Question Answering, Dialog Management and so on. MindMeld has written the book on these technologies and has built the world’s best conversational user interface platform.

This is the next step into a comprehensive AI-powered collaboration solution for Cisco. We are already leveraging AI/ML in new and exciting ways in existing products, from our SpeakerTrack to our VoiceTrack technologies. Bringing the MindMeld team to Cisco is a giant leap forward in helping our customers experience the next generation of interactive, conversational interfaces.

We’ve come a long way since the days of my silly first program on the TI 99-4a, but we’re really still at the beginning of the beginning of human-computer interfaces. Conversational interfaces are the next major step forward, and we’re thrilled to have MindMeld and their CEO, Tim Tuttle, join us to usher in the next era of AI-powered collaboration technology. What future do you see for AI in the enterprise? Let me know @rowantrollope.

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  1. My first computer was a TI 99-4A too. Without the cassette drive though, I got tired of losing my programs after each reboot. A glass of juice accidentally spilled in the keyboard finished it off…

  2. Over the last few months, we have worked on Chatbot (Cisco Spark, Facebook) integrated with Cisco’s DNA & demoed it to lot of customers, they love the concept & are interested in moving forward with this idea. Our team needs assistance to go forward.
    Looking forward to hear back. My Cisco user-id – nbangalo.

  3. Rowan,
    Pretty cool story !!
    It reminds me of one of my first assignment after undergrad to write equivalent of ELIZA (Marvin Minsky) using LISP.

    Conversational UI is one aspect of NUI to engage, experience and interact with computers or any automated systems and certainly a growing one !!

  4. wow

  5. Your post jogged an old memory: my first computer was also a TI 99-4a and I also had that speech module that plugged into the right-hand side. In retrospect, it’s amazing how high quality that speech was in the early 80s; it’s almost as if we took a speech break with computers for the following 20 years.

    Great choice with MindMeld!

  6. Ok. So the tech is damn cool. But we need to call out that the real win here is that we bought a company called Mindmeld. @Rowan Trollope, I hear that Mos Eisley’s Cantina is for sale – can we buy that next?

  7. Exciting news and promising innovations ahead in development of new Cisco products and capabilities utilizing what MindMeld brings to the party! Love the Siri game Rowan- definitely kicks car trip games up a couple notches from finding out of state license plates!

  8. Would you like to play a game? 😉

  9. Cool !

  10. good news !! Existed to see Collab suite integration with chatbot.

  11. Great article! You may like to consider having a chat with the German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI) to develop synergies. In the international scientific community, DFKI ranks among the most recognized “Centers of Excellence” and currently is the biggest research center worldwide in the area of Artificial Intelligence:

  12. I wonder how many people at Cisco were affected by War Games… seems like a lot!

  13. Very cool!! What’s next? Thought communication???

  14. Rowan, great story about your TI computer and interactions with Siri. That background story really help us understand how this area has evolved and has significant journey ahead of us. It’s glad to see Cisco getting best talent in this area to make collaboration portfolio “conversational”. Finally Cisco would have our own version of “Siri/Alexa”

  15. Great blog about great strides in innovation both in the marketplace and at Cisco. One to watch for sure!

  16. I can see conversational interfaces at every step of the customer’s relationship with us. A friendly voice on helps them research and compare product, service, and software offerings. Once they buy, the same voice helps them set up their devices and/or manage their cloud and software subscriptions. Problem? The same voice guides them through troubleshooting and R&R. Ready to renew or upgrade? The same voice supports that, too. All the while, a real human voice is only a step away if needed–for now, anyway. 🙂

  17. Mine was a commodore 64 but the movie was the same and I was calling into some of the same places our young matthew broderick was calling into before long. Thanks for the great insight –

  18. Oh, very nice indeed!

    Beam me up Scotty!

  19. This is amazing news. I can envision people will soon be asking questions to spark bots to pull the data from the systems in order to make informed decisions while collaborating with others. With IOT coming along, AI will help humans to mine zillions of data and help humans to take right decision by enabling right data at right time

  20. What a way for us to lead in the enterprise Collab space. I personally can’t live without Alexa anymore and want to see the same technology available in the work space. Our global customers are starting to ask us where we are in the AI/ ML development.

  21. The prospect of the types of interactions that may become possible from the Mind Meld acquisition to facilitate new forms of man machine interactions for Cisco is extraordinary. Building” interaction capabilities that can deliver next best actions from an AI engine with and without prompting will most certainly raise Cisco the Collaboration portfolio to a new heights!!! Bravo!!

  22. This sounds like an extremely promising development. Will be keeping a close eye on it.

  23. We’re having a great time enabling the workforce to have a conversation with their connected car in Cisco Spark to automate mileage expense reports with the Tripdots bot.Saving time for the workforce and delivering automation and better data for the enterprise. It’s a quick conversation today but we will be expanding with more NLP/ML based features to deliver more value, data and automation that gives the workforce more time back in their busy day.

  24. Now this is really cool news. I can see huge appeal in the industries we’re covering, notably financial services or retail to name but those I’m covering in the US. 🙂

  25. Rowan, this is right on. We are using ML in a POC of a closed loop automation for Network remediation. We haven’t thought of intelligent human conversation, still long way to go. Hopefully, we will be able to leverage this new acquisition capability to make this more interactive in meeting service assurance goals.

  26. This is amazing!