The following article was inspired by futurist John Smart’s series on the future of personal AI assistants, aka Sims. In a paraphrase of futurist Stewart Brand he notes, “We are gaining superpowers, so we better get good at using them.”
The online world has become filled with digital clutter – millions of apps, websites, video tools, messaging programs, and social media platforms, engulf our screens competing for our attention. Technology had the promise of making life easier, helping us organize and make sense of things, freeing us from drudgery, not filling it with more crap we don’t want.
Help is on the way. A race is going on between the tech giants to be the first to come up with the last app you will ever need. A single program that will be incredibly easy for anyone to use and that can do everything you want it to do.
The Rise of AI Assistants
Siri, the first widely distributed AI assistant, is about five years old. Back then, in the good ol’ days of 2012, there wasn’t much that she could do, at best if you yelled at her loud enough she might be able to tell you what the weather was like outside. Today there are a wide variety to choose from, the most intelligent are Amazon’s Alexa and Google’s Assistant, and they have come a long way from their primitive predecessor.
AI assistants have grown up fast thanks in large part to the growth of a branch of machine learning called natural language processing (NLP). Rapid improvements in this field have enabled us to talk to our machines almost as we would a human. They can now play whatever song you tell them to, instantly translate almost any phrase you say into any language you want, and answer just about any question you have.
And they are getting smarter every day. The goal of NLP is to get these machines to understand speech as well as humans can. This has been a huge stumbling block for AI, but once it gets passed this the entire field will take a giant leap forward. Combined with advances being made in other areas of machine learning, these assistants will eventually gain the ability to help you complete any task you can think of, relegating all the apps and programs that you use today into the background as they will simply become the abilities of your personal assistant.
Also, your Sim will be unique. Almost every interaction you have with the online world today is being collected and stored in giant data bases, eventually these sims will use all of this information to read through every email and message you have ever sent and check every website you have ever visited to learn about your job, your likes and dislikes, your hobbies, and your relationships, all to try and figure out how best to help you. It will also learn about your preferences and your habits as you use it, adapting to your particular character traits.
Sims Will Change Everything
When Steve Jobs announced the iPhone 10 years ago he was able to boldly proclaim that it was going to revolutionize how we interact with technology because he understood one thing about successful tools, they have to be easy to use. The user interface on the iPhone was intuitive enough that almost anybody could pick it up and use it. It only took a few years before everyone on earth had a similar smart phone in their pocket.
Sims will be even more intuitive because all you’ll have to do is talk to them. Everyone from monks on the foothills of Tibet to the President of the United States will have one. And it will be far more than just your personal assistant, it will effectively be your doctor, your lawyer, your accountant, your travel agent, your instant messenger, your source of news, and any other service that relies on passing information from one person to another.
It will also be able to do much of your job for you, freeing up your time. However, depending on what you do, it won’t take long for your boss to realize that his or her own Sim can also do your job.
Most experts say we are anywhere from 5 to 10 years away from having the technology in place and another 2 or 3 years after that for them to become widely distributed.
For more listen to Norman Winarsky, co-founder of Siri.
Great piece Ben! Most folks still don’t recognize how important these will be, and how helpful it will be for each of us to have intuitive verbal and graphical controls over the private data our sims collect, the algorithms they use, and the public face we present to the world through our sims. Huge political and economic battles will revolve around them as they grow in usefulness. I expect there will be robust open source sims for those who don’t trust the major players with providing them. Of course, most folks will just go with proprietary solutions. Hopefully the leading players, like Google, will be particularly focused on growing public data with regular private consent, and general user empowerment. We shall see.