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The Second Era of Technology
October 10th, 2011

by futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

The iPhone 4S announced last week received generally tepid reviews. The tech press was expecting more, mostly in the external form factor of the iPhone, and was disappointed when the ‘new’ iPhone looked the same as the old.

I completely disagree with the lack of enthusiasm, and think that the tech press missed a truly important development. I believe the iPhone 4S will eventually be seen as a crucial turning point in the history of technology because of its Siri speech comprehension software. Specifically, Siri is going to take a tool, the smartphone, and turn it into a companion. Computers aren’t going to be boxes that we use to do things any more. Instead, they are going to be our friends, allies, and servants that do things for us. They are going to be our protectors, advocates, and alter egos in cyberspace. Technology is moving past its First Era of being passive enablers that allow us to do things while we use them, into a more mature, Second Era where they work alongside of us.

Apple is not the first, but…

Apple isn’t the first company to create smart computer systems. IBM’s Watson computer made its public debut by beating the human champions on the television game show Jeopardy!, which was chosen because of it’s whimsical, very human use of the English language. Genetic programming (‘GP’) is a means of creating rules to identify patterns by means of natural selection, and can solve problems that humans can’t, or create solutions that humans might not consider, thereby augmenting human brains. John Koza, one of the pioneers in the field of GP, has used it to create new technologies, including new, patentable inventions. And there are undoubtedly other smart systems of the Second Era out there.

And Apple didn’t create Siri, they bought it from a company called SRI Ventures, which co-developed it with the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, or DARPA, an arm of the U.S Department of Defense that, among other things, invented the Internet. Siri was originally sold as an app for the iPhone, starting in February of 2010, with no involvement by Apple. But Apple bought it in April of 2010, and went to work on improving it and making it smarter and more responsive. Moreover, the fact that Apple has made it a significant feature of the iPhone, and calls it a beta version, means that it intends to continue to improve it.

But what Apple has done, and the reason why Siri will be so significant, is that it has created an entrancing user interface for a powerful technology that will entice people into using it, and it is this that is going to be a game changer. I suspect that Apple sees Siri and related developments as the way of the future: a computer that acts as if it’s your intelligent assistant or personal genie in cyberspace. Assuming it works reasonably well, and isn’t laughed off the stage, it will change the way we use technology forever.

Avoiding the mistakes of the Newton

Apple had a new technology laughed off the stage in the late 1980s with the much-maligned Newton, one of, if not the first tablet computer. Apple’s marketing people, in the absence of Steve Jobs, billed it as a handwriting recognition computer, but the handwriting recognition software wasn’t good enough to live up to the billing. As a result, the Newton was ridiculed, and deemed a flop, even though it was building a solid, even rabid following among organizations that needed computing power with graphic capabilities outside the office, like the U.S. Census Bureau and Boeing. Had Apple billed it as a powerful hand-held computer that had some handwriting recognition ability, it would have become a smash success, and we would be years ahead of where we are today. Unfortunately, when Steve Jobs returned to Apple in 1997, he found the company in dire financial straights, and killed the Newton as not immediately important to Apple’s mission. Instead, he focused on revitalizing the Macintosh and less ambitious new products, like the iPod, that could rebuild the company’s position and cachet. Having done that, Apple is now ready to radically change our relationship with technology – a fitting memorial to Steve Jobs.

Apple is not about to allow the kind of embarrassing failure that happened with the Newton to happen again. Indeed, in my view, this development has Jobs’ fingerprints all over it. As Jonathon Ive, who is Senior Vice-President of Industrial Design at Apple, said in a September, 2011 interview with the Los Angeles Times, Apple’s goal is always to ‘make something that looks like it wasn't really designed at all because it's inevitable.’ Siri fits perfectly with that goal. If early reports are right, Siri works just the way you’d want a computer assistant to work – if you had thought about it.

Speech comprehension, not speech recognition

Earlier I called Siri ‘speech comprehension’ software as opposed to ‘speech recognition’ software. The distinction was deliberate. There’s a big difference between recognizing what word has been spoken, and understanding what the speaker means. Most speech recognition systems run off menus that seek to match a recognized word with one of their listed answers. If you step outside this menu, such systems are lost, useless, and infuriating. Siri, on the other hand, goes far beyond that with context-sensitive capabilities, and will undoubtedly get better and better as time goes on, and as Apple continues to improve the software’s IQ. This is the critical issue with Siri: it may not be the first smart computer system, but it’s the one that will make the computer-as-companion desirable, even enjoyable. It represents Jobs’ and Apple’s genius at integrating technology into our lives in ways that we enjoy and find natural.

I’ve been thinking about, and expecting, this development to happen in one form or another for more than 20 years. In The Next 20 Years of Your Life, which I wrote in 1996, I used the following vignette to illustrate this kind of human-computer relationship:

Marc is late, he hasn’t been able to find a parking space near his destination, and he has to walk through one of the seedier, more dangerous parts of town to get to his appointment. Even though his concern about the interview ahead occupies most of his thoughts, he also has niggling doubts about his safety on the mean streets of Toronto’s inner city.

But Marc is a 35 years old software engineer specializing in adaptive computing software in the year 2017. He was a technologically sophisticated teenager, keen on the latest computers and an avid Net surfer even back in the communications Stone Age of the 1990s. As a result, he has eagerly and nimbly shifted from change to change as new communication technologies have appeared, and as companies have come and gone in the industry. He now prepares to use this skill to protect himself from potential danger.

‘Shields up, Mr. Sulu,’ Marc mumbles to his genie, whom he has named after a character in the classic 1960s television space opera, Star Trek. The ‘shields up’ command triggers a sequence of events. First, Mr. Sulu pinpoints Marc’s exact geographic position from the Global Positioning Network of satellites. Next, Mr. Sulu contacts Marc’s security provider, Minders Inc., alerting the monitoring genie that Marc is currently safe, but has concerns about his welfare. This commlink will remain continuously open during the ‘shields up’ alert, and if trouble arises, or if the link is cut, Minders’ genie will immediately call the police and give Marc’s last known location.

Finally, Mr. Sulu turns his attention to monitoring Marc’s surroundings. Tapping into the satellite network again, Mr. Sulu calls for a live video picture of Toronto, tightly focused on the area immediately around Marc. This is relatively expensive—it will probably cost Marc four or five dollars for the ten minutes he will use it—but it gives Mr. Sulu the opportunity to examine all the buildings and people around Marc, and to warn Marc of potentially dangerous situations or ominous groupings of people.

‘Cross the street here,’ Mr. Sulu says to Marc. ‘There’s a group of five people in the alley on your right up ahead, and only one of them has a phone address. From their dress and size, I would guess they are street kids. Move to the far side of the sidewalk opposite, and put some other pedestrians between you and them.’ Marc does as suggested. Sure enough, as a woman walks by the alley, the group emerges and starts to hassle her under the guise of asking for spare change.

‘Video feed to the police,’ Marc instructs. He has ordered Mr. Sulu to forward the satellite image of the group, along with his own video images captured by his LCD Looking Glasses as he walked by, to the police.

Thirty seconds later, a police cruiser and van pull up, and two officers get out while their drivers watch alertly, hands on riot control weapons. The police don’t arrest the loitering kids, but the kids leave, muttering about invasions of privacy, and casting about angry looks as they try to determine who might have called the cops.

‘Try to sell the images,’ Marc tells Mr. Sulu, even as he hurries away from the scene. Local news retailers are not interested in an assault that didn’t happen, but a sociology professor in Wichita, Kansas who is researching street youth offers to reimburse Marc for his costs for the clip. After a brief negotiation, Mr. Sulu accepts the offer, and the credit transfer is made.

Marc arrives at his appointment in time to catch his breath and cancel the shields up alert before being ushered into the interview. As the conversation between Marc and the interviewers goes back and forth, Mr. Sulu reminds Marc of the things he has said in his proposal to this group, of the committee’s statements about what they is seeking in a candidate, and something of the backgrounds of each of the interviewers. The interviewers hear and see nothing of the information Mr. Sulu is feeding Marc, and Marc gives nothing away by his demeanor. However, the interviewers know exactly what Mr. Sulu is doing for Marc, because each of them is getting the same kind of information from their own genies.

At a critical point in the interview, Mr. Sulu tells Marc that the company interviewing him has just issued a press release announcing the signing of a contract in Venezuela. The services they are to provide to the Venezuelan government are dependent on exactly the kinds of skills Marc has. Mr. Sulu estimates that the company will need either him, or someone very much like him, and quickly. Based on this information, Marc makes a calculated gamble, and toughens his negotiating posture, asking for a lower base fee plus a share of the profits, rather than a flat fee for the entire project. Realizing that his genie has tipped Marc off, the interviewers quickly agree before Marc has a chance to make any further evaluation and up his demands.

There are handshakes most of the way around. However, the personal health profiles each person’s genie transmits to every other genie indicate that there are slight but measurable health risks between Marc and one of the interviewers if they come into direct physical contact. Accordingly, on the instructions of both genies, they merely nod in a friendly way. No offense is taken by either party; this is a common social occurrence that carries no stigma.

Marc leaves, satisfied that he has an entry into a major new contract, and has started to build a useful new relationship. Feeling cocky and preoccupied with his good fortune, he has to be reminded by Mr. Sulu to call for a ‘shields up’ alert again for his walk back to the car.

The First Era of the relationship between humans and technology was technology as a passive tool, starting with the stone tools used by hominids over 2 ˝ million years ago, and includes the vast majority of today’s computers and communications systems. I believe that Siri and similar developments represent a revolution, and the beginning of the Second Era: technology as companions and assistants working alongside us.

The Third Era will arrive much faster, within the next 10-20 years, or even less: technology that can think and act independently of humans.

© Copyright, IF Research, October 2011.

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