Notes on Tyler Cowen on relearning the Internet

Tyler Cowen has a new column out about "relearning how to use the Internet." As usual, the column is worth reading. Here are some reactions. (As always, I'm speaking only for myself.)

First, consider Tyler's description of a possible future Twitter: "Less than two years from now, maybe I will speak into a computer, outline my topics of interest, and somebody's version of AI will spit back to me a kind of Twitter remix, in a readable format and tailored to my needs." This is, structurally, very close to today's new-user flow at Twitter! You don't speak the topics, and some people don't find the result so readable, but I'd say that this description literally fits many people's interactions with Twitter today.

Alternative ways to read this prediction, then, are (i) as a commentary on what current optimal use of Twitter looks like (a lot of deliberate user modification) and (ii) as a prediction that Twitter's AI will get better, not that it will change so fundamentally.

Second, I worry that Tyler is sometimes characterizing non-AI obstacles as AI obstacles. Some of his speculations involve aggregating search results across services ("the current aggregators will themselves be aggregated and organized") and changing the user's experience with existing services ("you won't use Google, you will just ask your question to an AI and receive an answer"). Here I'd note that:

  1. The changes Tyler imagines do not rest on improvements to AI as much as changes to UX;
  2. Google, Amazon, and others are already working very hard to let you "just ask your question to [any number of devices] and receive an answer"--as a user, I think that in some cases these already work quite well;
  3. One could imagine different or better results from combining current companies' responses to the same query, but combining these is more of a logistical and political project than an "AI" one;

More evidence for these is that many companies have already tried to build smart aggregation services on top of existing search and storage services. I am not an expert here, but I don't think that what has kept those new products from succeeding is that the meta-level AI wasn't good enough. Rather, the services resisted integration, the user experience wasn't good enough, or some single underlying component was so good that it rendered the others superfluous.

Relatedly, some of Tyler's speculations seem to have more to do with single-result search products, as Byrne Hobart wrote up recently (it's a free article). This feature, returning one result instead of many, characterizes some of Tyler's central examples: two of these are using Google Maps instead of typing a query for directions into the search box and getting answers from a voice-activated question-and-answer service. Better AI doubtless makes single-result interfaces more practical. Still, returning one result instead of many, and returning it in a particularly actionable form, is fundamentally a change in the interface as opposed to a replacement of something else with AI.

It's also worth considering the psychological barriers to using the sorts of services Tyler describes. Consider a Google search result that includes helpful notes about Google Drive documents, your email, and various other Google services. This is, in many ways, the sort of ur-level AI-driven experience Tyler imagines. It already exists! Many people find these results unsettling or confusing. Tyler seems implicitly to believe that people will accept these new AI-driven, aggregated services. I don't disagree, but I don't think it's obvious that they will. Here as elsewhere, the changes Tyler imagines are in some ways already here. In some cases they are not really AI changes at all, or at least the quality of the AI is not what is holding them back.

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