The Adventures of Conversation Man Episode 1: Is it a bird!? Is it a plane?! No, it’s Conversation Man!

Dr John Reed spent 8 years at Oxford University (amassing 3 social science degrees including a Ph.D).  He worked for several years with historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin (author of the likes of ‘An Intimate History of Humanity’ and ‘Conversation’) on conversation projects in health centres, shopping centers, high streets, art galleries, libraries, choirs, and even IKEA to see if it could be turned into a cultural and community hub. 

At Say It Now, John is our ‘conversationalist in residence’. Raising the bar in our understanding and thinking of the immense power conversation has on the human experience in relation to life, the universe and everything in between.

In this realm he’s no longer Dr. John Reed, in this world, he’s…Conversation Man!

Howdy, I’m Conversation Man, SayItNow’s new ‘conversationalist in residence’. My  mission being to stimulate a fascinating conversation about, well, conversation in  relation to life, the universe and everything including what SayItNow are up to now  and in the possible future. The aim being to explore strange new conversational  worlds, to seek out new life and new conversations, to boldly go where no conversation has gone before, reaching the parts that other conversations cannot reach.  

This isn’t my first gig as a conversationalist, as after spending 8 years at Oxford  University (amassing 3 social science degrees including a Ph.D) I worked for quite a  few years with historian and philosopher Theodore Zeldin (author of the likes of ‘An  Intimate History of Humanity’ and ‘Conversation’) on conversation projects in  London. Our chief methods being ‘Conversation Meals’, for up to 200 people, where  guests were given a ‘Menu of Conversation’ of interesting life topics and asked to  discuss it one-on-one with someone they don’t know over a simple meal, and also the ‘Self-Portrait’, transcribed and edited from a recorded conversation with an  individual on the same sort of topics. Such work taking us into health centres,  shopping centres, high streets, art galleries, public libraries, choirs and even Ikea to experiment with turning it into a cultural and community centre.  

More latterly I’ve also been working as a part-time ‘conversationalist in residence’ at  my neighbour’s speciality coffee hatch near Tower Bridge, utilising some of the  same methods and generally getting to know people on my street, sometimes using my ‘conversation cards’ adapted from Theodore’s topics.  

I’ve also been involved in the indie art world for quite a few years, founding an art  gallery with a bloke I met on the internet via a blogging project and making art  works for gallery shows based on my cartoon cowboy alter ego Jon Buck (who’s  loosely based on me, Jon Arbuckle from Garfield and Joe Buck from the film  Midnight Cowboy). Including a comic-novel about Jon Buck’s adventures entitled  ‘Quest of the Double Cursed Cowboy’. All of which is pretty conversational and  involves meeting a variety of mostly arty people in a fairly random fashion.  

Finally I also spent a few months working at a brand consultancy on ‘blogs’, ‘depths’ and ‘groups’, which were all somewhat conversational ways of interrogating  the public about their relationship with brands.  

As you can see most of my conversational adventures thus far have tended to be  ‘IRL’ (in real life) and have involved me either having conversations with other  physically present human beings or otherwise stimulating conversations between  other physically present human beings. Albeit with the odd adventure into the  internet in terms of blogs, emails and youtube, sometimes in the context of art  related on-line dating. So the idea of being a conversationalist at SayItNow, who  exist at the forefront of voice enabled advertising, felt like something of a new  horizon for me, as it was taking me into the territory of AI and talking not with  humans but with robots. All of which created an element of excitement, but also  trepidation, within me, as after all while I’ve got considerable conversational  credentials I’m far from an expert in the realms of technology and related business.  

Like many people, no doubt, my awareness of Conversational AI and its various uses was rather limited. As while I’ve got an Alexa smart speaker I don’t chat to it much, and my interactions with the internet are mostly Social Media, smart phone App or website based. My experience of ‘Chatbots’ was also on the whole that they were  rather rudimentary devices employed in customer service which weren’t much use. My notion of having ‘conversations with robots’ was thereby predominantly from the  realm of science-fiction, e.g. KITT from Knight Rider, Holly from Red Dwarf, Hal from  2001 a Space Odyssey, the Replicants from Blade Runner, Jonny 5 from Short Circuit or more latterly Scarlett Johansen’s voice from ‘Her’. Much of which tended  to wander around the idea of techno utopia / dystopia.  

My first SayItNow conversational adventure was thereby with myself, involving the  internet as well as SayItNow’s recent webinar, trying to discover what on earth was  going on in reality in the realm of AI and conversation. My first discovery being that the notion of AI’s, and thereby robots, being able to approximate genuine human conversation is still in the realms of science fiction. As while there’s been considerable progress in relation to NLP (Natural Language Processing), machine  learning and neural networks, AI-conversationalists still can’t manage the necessary empathy, intuition or relevant knowledge / experience based responses that the human brain is able to.  

Never the less it seems that Conversational AI, and in particular related forms of chatbot (some of them voice enabled), are coming on fast in a variety of fields. The most obvious ones being customer service call centres and live lead follow up with regard to sales and marketing. But the more interesting fields seem to be in:  

a) Interactive marketing / advertising, where for example Disney and Marvel have  used Conversational AI to creative more immersive experiences in which movie fans can chat  to, and go on adventures with, their favourite protagonists (such as Star Lord from Guardians of the Galaxy and Lieutenant Hopps from Zootopia). And also PG Tips have created an interactive Conversational AI Monkey mascot, who not only discusses tea with you but also helped raise money for Red Nose Day. SayItNow, of course, being leaders in this area with regard to voice interactivity, having worked with the likes of Talisker Whisky and Comic Relief.  

b) Politics, journalism and social activism, where your NBC Conversational AI bot will interactively filter news and opinion for you, like a kind of personal assistant newsreader. Or for example UNICEF’s U-report bot gathers regular polls on urgent social issues, which can then be acted on, such as putting an end to teachers coercing students into sex for better grades in Liberia.  

c) Health and well-being, such as companion chatbots for people suffering with  dementia or insomnia, or a kind of proto-doctor bot that makes medical  diagnoses faster and more accurate. Bedside voice bots also being trialled in  hospitals, as a kind of always-on nurse’s assistant who can do certain basic  tasks and otherwise call help. There also being a variety of therapy style bot apps available, such as ‘Closer to you’, which help couples to have better  conversations.  

It’s clearly an exciting, and potentially vast, area and one that I look forward to  exploring, in a conversational fashion, in the future. But equally it did all make me  wonder about my own experiences IRL of being a conversationalist in a coffee hatch and art galleries, as well as trying to turn an Ikea superstore into a bit of a cultural  and community centre. As what all of this was playing with was in effect whether, and how, it is possible to introduce elements of wider human conversation and  experience into the landscape of consumerism.  

A notion which is inevitably somewhat against the grain of efficiency, in business  terms, if not against the grain of efficiency in human terms. As after all while we  might go to Ikea primarily to buy a sofa or lampshade, or a coffee hatch to buy a  coffee or bun, it’s also part of our lives.  

A fact that was brought home to me recently after my neighbour’s coffee hatch  closed down not long ago after 11 years, due to an issue with the crazy landlord.  Several ex-customers having bumped into me on my street lamenting the loss not only of a good coffee that they can’t really get elsewhere, but also the loss of  conversation and related human experience. As part of my neighbour’s slightly  eccentric vibe, and my own, was to engage customers on all manner of topics, some  of them more humorous or mundane but also intellectual or personal. Which would  sometimes spill over into two or more customers who didn’t know each other having  a chat about something other than the weather. All of which has now gone, leaving a  hole in many ex-customers’ lives, who can still get an ok coffee and perhaps a bit of  minor chit chat (if they are lucky) from the other purveyors of such produce on the street. But unfortunately their lives, and the community they are embedded in, have  without doubt become more bland, and arid, since our demise.  

All of which does make me wonder, for example, about the ‘future of the cafe’. As it seems that robot baristas are coming. Making coffee in fact being quite an obvious  thing for robots to be doing, as most baristas are pretty hopeless, or at least  mediocre, and the process in effect requires mechanical, technical perfection. One  can thereby imagine cafes in the future being staffed by robots, perhaps supervised by a human being or two.  

But if this is the case, where might people get their daily dose of conversation, as well as coffee, from? As for all these Apps on people’s smart phones and such like it  seems that people by and large still want conversations and experiences IRL, as  much as on-line. One answer of course could be better developed AI  conversationalist-baristas, who can engage one on all manner of interesting topics  of the day, and even introduce you to other customers who might be worth talking  to.  

Although technologically that seems some way off at present. I thereby think it’s  more plausible that, like in Knight Rider, the customer might be met by a  conversational duo, in the form of human-cafe-supervisor and AI-barista. As a kind of Hasselhoff and KITT double act, where the customer, the human supervisor and  the AI-barista bounce ideas and experiences around between one another. The Hasselhoff character papering over the cracks and filling in the blanks for the KITT  character, and KITT providing amusing and interesting interjections out of their neural network web brain.  

Yours, Conversation Man  

p.s. a good conversation is after all a journey, with others. And so if you’ve got any  thoughts about, or stimulated by, any of the above, or there’s a topic or question  raised you’d like to hear more about, or there’s something going on which you feel is relevant, do email me at . See you in episode 2…