October 2011: Tim Cook takes the stage of Apple’s annual Media event for the first time as CEO. On the heels of record-setting achievements from the first four iPhones, Cook debuts Apple’s latest device: iPhone 4s. The aesthetics match the iPhone 4; the technical specifications improve, but not significantly; only one feature clearly distinguishes the new product from its predecessors: Siri. This single feature captures the imagination and interest of audiences worldwide and contributes to the iPhone 4s shattering previous sales records.[i]
Granted, Siri 1.0 had its difficulties. Long load times, spotty speech recognition and limited logical breath all plagued this first iteration. Yet even in the beginning, there was something captivating about asking Siri a question like, “Can I wear shorts in San Francisco today?” And, moments later, Siri offers a human-like response that details the weather and suggests proper attire. Although artificial intelligence (AI) had taken various forms before this new product release, 2011 marked a dramatic shift towards a new application of AI in consumer technology products.[ii] Siri 1.0 was not perfect; but, it represented a bold alpha version of a cutting-edge class of technologies that would define a new era of innovation.
Today I am going to dive into the world of AI. First I will explore the basis of AI; second, I will argue how AI was the missing “trend” at CES; and third, I will look towards the implications of AI development moving forward.
Some have called AI the next step of human evolution.[iii] Others have warned that developing AI may lead to the next great extinction of our planet.[iv] The truth is, nobody knows for certain. What is undeniable, however, is that the exploration of AI represents a new chapter in the human experience. It is a quest to create an intelligence that operates synthetically but has a human-like capacity to think, question, understand, act, etc. Taken to dystopian extremes, think Skynet in The Terminator. Taken to another limit, think Jarvis in Iron Man.
AI will power the next generation of smart devices. There is an important distinction that needs to be made: “smart” as has been used in the past few years across consumer technology products does not really mean smart (as in the sense of AI integration). Devices such as The August Smart Lock for example, claim to be “smart,” but are really just smartphone-enabled devices that contain no AI. Truly smart products will incorporate various aspects of AI to drive greater value for the consumer. In the consumer market today, AI manifests itself in products like Siri, the iRobot Roomba cleaning robot that is able to learn the floor-plan of its residence, and even the recommended products section listed on most ecommerce web pages (such as Amazon). Each of these products utilizes AI in a different way but all three represent only a small percentage of the full potential of AI applications.
AI at CES:
While at CES, I spent the majority of my time in the “smart” sections of the convention floor. Walking around, I saw countless “smart” wearables, “smart” home appliances, “smart” toys and gadgets etc. “Smart” is a buzz-word in this hyper-competitive market. The problem is, as discussed above, most of these products have no AI application. From a branding standpoint labeling a product as “smart” does indeed add nontangible value to its sale – it’s false advertising. In a sea of products claiming to be “smart,” I had trouble seeing any of them as particularly functional, unique or meeting any real consumer demands.
The automobile exhibit ran on AI.[v] Auto companies are understanding the significance of AI in transforming the world of transportation. From self-driving cars that are forced to make billions of decisions a second to the creation of custom maps that evolve from a car’s surrounding environment, AI is foundational to the future of automobiles. With a combination of old guard companies (Ford, GM, Toyota) and new age players (Tesla, Faraday Motors, Apple (?)) the potential for growth is tremendous.
AI is the next frontier of technology development. With the exception of the automobile exhibit, it was largely under the radar at CES. Moving forward, it will define the innovations of the future.
AI Moving Forward:
“Smart” devices can and will become smarter. While many devices may not be living up to their “smart” labels now, improvement is on the way. Take the Jawbone Up, for example. The band itself offers limited and undifferentiated tracking functionality; but, its companion mobile application now has the ability to analyze user fitness and eating trends and offer predictive insights to influence future user behaviors. Bands of the future might be able to use AI to understand their users at such an intimate level that their functionality may be likened to that of a human fitness trainer. This kind of individualized understanding could present a vast array of new case uses for such devices. Looking beyond wearables, AI will continue to define the world of automation and virtual assistance as seen in Siri, Google Now, Facebook M etc.
Sadly, it impossible to look at the development of AI and its potential transformational impact without acknowledging the unknown. When we gain the capacity to create a synthetic intelligence, will we also have the power to control it? Such a draconian possibility cannot be ignored. As technology takes strides towards the adoption of AI, serious caution must be taken to understand and consider the potential for unintended outcomes. Such deliberations need to take place now in order to ensure we create the Jarvis of the future and prevent any shadow of an analog to Skynet.
That simple command is now all it takes to summon the increasingly functional and relevant abilities of the intelligence that started it all. Indeed, Siri 5.0 is hardly recognizable to its 1.0 iteration. The question, however, is this: while AI like Siri is transforming our technologies and has the potential to provide unprecedented value for users worldwide, at what cost? I see the potential for loss of control, the substitution of AI interactions for human contact (see: Her), the mechanization of warfare, just to name a few. I am forced to wonder about the future. There is no clear answer now, nor will there be anytime in the near future.
The best we can do is critically question each step forward. Although, I did try asking Siri to weigh in on the debate. Sadly, the only response I got was: