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From the GUI to ChatGPT: a historical sketch of HCI research agendas and their applicability today

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Bill Gates has recently remarked that ChatGPT-4 is as revolutionary as the GUI was thirty years ago. Will it be? To assess that claim I want to trace the connection between the HCI research that lead to the GUI and the research that needs to be done with large language models and their chatbox interfaces today. I will explore how interactions with GUIs and LLMs have basic properties in common – various kinds of abstract notions about content (in the case of GUIs about the things represented graphically and in the case of LLMs, the thing being modelled); how these abstractions are also engineered into the systems themselves; and in their ‘aboutness’ to put it in Peirce-like terms, i.e., what they are for, being visible and known to both users and engineers alike. In the case of the Xerox GUI , this aboutness had to do with document editing; with LLMs it is, in my view, still evolving and unclear, even contested. These assumptions may be said to constitute the grammar of action with GUIs and LLMs. Having explored these and other grammars of action with computer systems, I will suggest the grammar of action with LLMs need further development, and that without HCI research in this regard the revolution that Gate’s alerts us to is unlikely to be the one he expects and nor with all the benefits he seems to imply.

Research for this presentation derives from the preparation of Richard’s latest book, The Shape of Thought’ (McGill Press).

Prior to this book, Richard has written 19 others, including the Myth of the Paperless Office (MIT), Texture: human expression in the age of communications overload (MIT), Choice: the sciences of reasoning in the 21st Century (Polity), and Skyping the Family (Benjamins). He has spent most of his research career in and around Cambridge, having worked at Xerox EuroPARC and then Microsoft Cambridge. He is currently director of the Leverhulme Centre for Material Social Futures at Lancaster University.

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