The pervasive yet discreet technology of the future that aims at decluttering our lives
by Edoardo Maggio
With its incredible reach, mobile — and the smartphone, its biggest expression, in particular — has deeply changed society. As Benedict Evans likes to put it, in fact, “mobile ate the world”. That’s the name of one of his most recent presentations, which he has worked on for a number of years now as a leading analyst at Andreessen Horowitz (“a16z”), a venture capital firm that monitors trends in technology and their impact on the world. “The change in scale means that mobile, unlike anything before it, has the potential to reach everyone on Earth. And I mean everyone, sub-Saharan African countries included. There are more people with smartphones than access to the electricity grid there,” he says. Two and a half billion smartphones are being actively used in the world right now, a number that’s estimated to double within 2020, according to a16z’s research.
“The disruptive nature of mobile made it so that technology has outgrown the technology industry,” says Evans. And what that means is that every object, gadget and piece of furniture we would previously think of as separate and belonging to its own realm is now being subtly integrated in a larger, more intricate scheme that aims at linking together all the things we use in our lives. Some people refer to it as the “Internet of Things”, but it’s actually much bigger than that. And in this silent, ongoing revolution, there really is one connective tissue that is holding everything together: artificial intelligence. The mobile revolution has essentially put a supercomputer in the pocket of everyone on the planet, but more often than not, we still juggle with it amid an increasing amount of “stuff”. The shared feeling is that we are being overwhelmed, almost drowning in content. The open floodgate represented by the expansion of mobile has gifted us with something big — almost the entirety of human knowledge at the tip of our finger is no small feat — but at the same time we still don’t know where to look.
“This is why digital assistants have been built in the first place,” says Justin Uberti, who works at Google as part of the team who launched the AI-powered “Assistant” last year. The Google Assistant is a digital helper that lives inside your phone, and is the firm’s answer to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa, the other assistants living inside of those companies’ respective platforms and services. “When Google first started out, the famous search box on our home page was a smart and intuitive user interface expedient that allowed everyone to look for something and find relevant content,” — and it indeed helped us extricating ourselves in the Internet jungle, so much so that “google” has become a verb. “But now there’s just so much information out there that it’s hard to even manage our own data.” The Assistant aims at simplifying this hunting process, and — much like an in-the-flesh secretary — does things for you as a result, at times before you even ask them.
“The Google Assistant is not made for everyone,” Uberti says, “It’s for you.”
Thanks to the power of artificial intelligence and the walloping amount of data Google can tap into, the Assistant can help you do all sorts of things. In layman’s terms, the necessary steps to make our smart devices actually smart, intelligent, are finally being taken. There is indeed a bit of a trade off in the sense that we need to feed private information to these assistants (and, by extension, the companies behind them), but there is no other way for these machines to truly become personal and tailored to us if they know nothing about who we are — or, rather, what we do and like. And regardless of how hellbent tech firms are in proving that they care about privacy, it’s on us to be careful about what kind of information we give away. There is no obligation to do so; the use of AI is entirely optional, at least for now. Personal AI (best embodied by these virtual helpers) is still nascent and thus a little rough around the edges, but when it works, it already feels like magic; because it seems like it truly understands you.
And the more these machines learn about us now, the better they will be able to serve us in the future, no matter where we are. “The nature of AI takes advantage of the multiplicity of devices that surround us and follows you no matter what device you use,” says Ben Thompson, a technology veteran who’s worked for the likes of Apple and Microsoft and is now at the helm of Stratechery, a self-funded company that focuses on analysing the industry and bridging the gaps between companies, consumers and investors. “It’s the real strength of AI’s mobility, which puts you and your needs as the central hub of your operations, whatever their nature.” The Google Assistant, in fact, embodies the nature of “mobile” perfectly. It lives in Thompson’s house, other than his phone, thanks to another product that the search giant released last autumn. It’s called Google Home, and it’s a simple loudspeaker equipped with microphones that sits in your living room and waits for the magic hotword — “Hey Google” — to trigger the Assistant and answer your questions.
Google is universally considered the leader of this AI revolution, but companies like Amazon and Microsoft have long been in the game, and are just as focused in making AI an absolute priority in every product, service and division. The Amazon Echo is what has inspired Google Home, after all, and Cortana went live before the Assistant. There are half a billion Windows 10 devices out there, and each and every one of them comes equipped with Microsoft’s digital butler out of the box; and, much like Google’s, it sits a tap (or a shout) away from the system’s “home” button, and is always listening. Cortana, too, can turn on or off your smart lights, tell you how much battery is left in your car, control the camera in your baby’s room, pull up your next flight’s boarding pass — and, with the right app, even make you coffee. These are all things you can do right now, and that once having got past the awkwardness of conversing with your phone, computer, smartwatch or loudspeaker, make your life much easier, allowing you to offload tasks and get things done quicker, so that you can focus on the things that require your undivided attention.
Joseph Sirosh thinks that “the AI revolution is unlike anything we’ve ever seen before”. He is the VP of the Microsoft Data Group, which focuses on AI and its applications. “So far we’ve been building an increasingly complex version of a car,” he says. “We’ve made more powerful engines, fine-tuned the transmission, tweaked the design and embellished the interiors. But AI is different, because for the first time we’re actually ceding control of the steering wheel.” It’s a powerful metaphor, because it speaks volumes in regards to the tentacular reach of AI. Microsoft — and, perhaps even more, Google — remain the most prominent examples, because their services are the ones billions of people use every single day, and the place where a lot of the AI magic has already happened. It’s like AI took the steering wheel, yes, but from the backseat.
“Most people just don’t notice, because there’s not a changelog of AI-backed improvements that pops up in your face every time you use Google Search or open Facebook,” says Ben Bajarin, an academic researcher who works for Creative Strategies, a market research firm, and mainly focuses on the impact that new technologies have for the general consumer. “AI changes mostly happen in the back-end, and that makes it both incredibly powerful in its reach and comfortably discrete in its outcome.” Most of the things we already use, in fact, have switched to AI-based models without us noticing or lifting a finger, and work infinitely better because of it. Google’s Search algorithms, for instance, use AI to predict what exactly you’re looking for, while its Translate branch is literally teaching new languages itself by munching through all the data users input every day.
AI is already making our lives better. Be it in our phones, our computers or in a dedicated piece of software or furniture — and soon our cars, watches, fridges, and even cities, to an extent — our only request remains to keep feeding it data to make its answers more accurate and customised to our needs. We’re not about to witness a robot take-over anytime soon — those are science fiction cliches. We should instead understand and embrace this change, before it inevitably tips us over from underneath. Our lives are busy and hectic, and we need all the help we can have. So sit back, relax, and start talking. An assistant is listening.