“Where did I leave my keys?”

by senior futurist Richard Worzel, C.F.A.

The emergence of computer genies, such as Siri on the Apple iPhone, Cortana from Microsoft, or IBM’s Watson, will lead to many changes in the way we live our lives and interact with our surroundings, both in the real world and in cyberspace. But one seemingly minor advantage of having and using computer genies will be that they will be able to answer questions like the one in the blog title: Where did I leave my keys?

Let me back up and explain what I mean by a computer genie. The concept is one of having a seemingly intelligent computer, such as Siri, Cortana, or Watson, act as what other commentators have called your personal avatar, butler, servant, or companion, mostly acting in cyberspace. I use the term genie because its goal is to try to grant our wishes.

These smart companions will act as our agents, again, largely in cyberspace, reminding us of up-coming events and things we need to do, monitoring the safety of our computer systems from hackers, viruses, and other attacks, and acting on our behalf in commercial transactions, as well as interacting with other people’s genies to set up appointments, make arrangements, transfer information, and so on.

Much has been written about these things, including extensive passages of my 1997 book The Next 20 Years of Your Life, which is about to reach its best-by date. However, I’d like to focus on one hitherto unacknowledged application for genies: keeping track of us and our belongings.

“Where did I leave my keys?”

Suppose you have a penchant for just dropping your keys wherever you happen to be once you get home, and thus have a problem finding them when you’re getting ready to leave again. Today, you probably spend a great deal of time and frustration looking for them, and getting progressively more and more irritated with yourself and everyone else. In the not-too-distant future, though, all you will have to do is ask your genie (let’s call him “Robin”, just to be cute) where your keys are. If you’ve prepared him to do this kind of thing, he’ll say something like, “You dropped them on the chair by the front door when you came in last night. If they’re not there, they have probably slipped onto the floor nearby.”

You can then stop looking in the bathroom, the living room, and everywhere else you’ve left your keys in the past, and make a bee-line for the chair in the front hallway to find your keys with minimal frustration.

“Where’s that book I was reading?”

A similar transaction might be if you asked Robin, “Where’s that book on complex systems I was reading about a month ago?” This time, though, it requires Robin to have archived what you did with specific belongings over an extended period of time, and to be able to figure out precisely which book you’re referring to. However, if you’ve asked a similar question in the past, then Robin will have learned that you want him to track this kind of thing. If he is thus programmed to do this, he might respond, “Do you mean ‘The Theory of Complexity’ by Merti Williams?”

“Yeah, that’s the book.”

“It’s in your office, on the floor by the left-hand side of the desk, under a set of blue file folders.”

Problem solved – unless someone has recently moved the book, or the files on top of it without you being aware of it.

“Where was that shop?”

Or suppose you’re strolling through a shopping mall, on the way to meet a friend for lunch. After lunch, you remember that you want to find a new windbreaker to replace the aging, ratty old one that your wife keeps nagging you about. And you recall that you noticed that a store that had a sale on outdoor gear, but you can’t remember which one, or where it was as you weren’t paying attention at the time. Ask Robin, and he might reply, “Grant’s Outdoor Stores has a 25% off sale on outdoor equipment sale. You probably saw it as you walked by. Would you like me to show you how to get there?”

If agree, your augmented reality goggles (or better yet, contact lenses) will display arrows in your field of vision, with appropriate text, such as “Walk 50 feet, then turn left at the corner ahead. It will take you about 3 minutes to get to the store.”

Of course, Robin could also tap into the mall’s website to find which other merchants are offering sales, or even make your interest known (anonymously or not) to the mall’s website in order to elicit immediate discount offers from the mall’s merchants, or even a much wider range of merchants, including some online. In fact, you will have a choice of ways you can gather information of interest to you, at the moment you want it, all managed by Robin in order to make your life as simple as possible.

“What’s that woman’s name?”

Suppose you’re at a cocktail party, and you’re introduced to someone new. If you’re like most people, you smile and nod, and her name just slips past you. (In fact, the major reason most people are “bad at names” is that they never really listen to them in the first place.) Suppose later that evening, she’s looking towards you while speaking to a friend of yours, and the two of them start walking towards you. Instead of panicking, you ask Robin (sub-vocally, if necessary, so that no one but Robin can understand you), “What’s the name of the woman walking towards me with Ron Merrick?” Robin reaches into his recorded memory, shows you the woman’s image from your earlier introduction, replaying her name as she pronounced it, then repeats that pronunciation for you a second time to make sure you’ve got it.

And, again, Robin might also do some quick, online research, using facial recognition software to match the woman’s face to her LinkedIn profile, or find a news article about her to give you more information about her. The point is that Robin will be able to help you remember, or discover, the names of people you meet and encounter, and provide some background on who they are if you wish.

All of this raises the issue of personal privacy in public spaces, which has been discussed at length elsewhere, and is worrisome. However, that’s a different topic for a different blog.

“Where am I meeting my wife?”

As the clock winds down, and you’re approaching the end of your working day, Robin reminds you that you and your wife said you wanted to go to dinner and a movie this evening. You discussed a number of films, and narrowed it down to three recently Oscar-nominated offerings you wanted to see.

At your request, Robin starts multi-tasking. First he contacts Cary, your wife’s computer genie, who confirms that your wife, who is at her workplace across town, hasn’t made any conflicting plans, and does, indeed, want to do dinner and a film. Next, Cary reviews the start times of the three films discussed at nearby theatres, while Robin digs up the relevant film reviews for each one. The films and reviews are presented to you both. The start time for one film isn’t convenient, and the reviews from your favorite reviewers for a second are so-so, so Cary and Robin both suggest the third film, to which you both agree.

Now both genies ask their hosts what they feel like eating. Your wife wants sushi, whereas you want Italian. Robin sides with your wife because Robin is also monitoring your calorie and nutritional intake as you’re trying to lose some weight following the holidays. You reluctantly agree, while muttering about disloyal pieces of junk, which Robin ignores. Cary then suggests a sushi restaurant you both like near the theatre you’ll be attending, and makes a reservation for two. Cary and Robin also download your nutritional needs, allergies, and sensitivities to the restaurant chef’s computer, as well as the kinds of menu items each of you have enjoyed in the past. The restaurant’s computer suggests a number of customized menu items, based on your nutritional profiles, previous choices, what the kitchen has in stock, along with the prices for each item. Note that every patron’s menu might be unique, although there is frequently a great deal of overlap in menu choices for most people.

Robin and Cary both make tentative selections, presenting them to their hosts for approval, and then place the orders.

Each genie now calculates how long it will take you to reach the restaurant, based on your current locations and how crowded transit is projected to be when you leave. Each then tells its host when they will need to leave their office to get to the restaurant on time.

When both you and your wife arrive within seconds of each other, you are greeted at the restaurant’s entrance by your (correctly pronounced) names, your coats are taken and handed to your server, who hangs them up, and you are escorted to your table by the owner. Your genies could have directed you to the coat rack and your table, but the restaurant prides itself on human service, so your are offered this unnecessary courtesy, particularly as you are valued customers who have eaten there before.

Your pre-dinner drinks arrive almost as soon as you settle yourself into your table. Relaxing, you talk about your day’s events, comparing notes about what you’ve done before moving onto future plans. When you start to get restless, and your genies interpret from your body language that you’re ready to eat, they ask if this is the case. When you confirm that you do, Robin signals to your server’s genie that you are ready, and he quickly arrives with the first course.

Supper proceeds from there in a smooth, satisfying flow that runs at a tempo you both find comfortable. When you’re ready to leave, Robin contacts the restaurant’s computer, confirms the amount of the bill, checks that it matches what you ordered, presents the total, along with your customary tip, to you for confirmation. You barely glance at it in your contact lenses, then nod to confirm payment while continuing to talk to your wife. Robin confirms the payment to the restaurant, and authorizes the payment from your credit card to the restaurant.

When you’re ready to leave, your server appears with your coats and thanks you, and the owner appears at the door just before you leave, bowing to thank you for visiting again.

At no time did either of you reach for your wallets or put your hands in your pockets. You could have viewed a customized, physical menu if you wished, but as you’ve been to this restaurant many times before, your genies, working with the restaurant’s suggestions, offered up the entrées your were most likely to want. Your dining experience was smooth, soothing, and simple, both for you and for the restaurant staff.

“Has Mandy come home yet?”

After the movie finishes, you walk out into the street while Robin hails a self-driving Uber car to convey you home. Once you’re both settled into the car, you ask Robin if your daughter, Mandy, has arrived home from her date yet. Robin consults Mandy’s genie (to Mandy’s annoyance), and confirms that Mandy arrived home before 10:30, as agreed. You decide not to ask who Mandy was dating as Mandy has just turned 16, thinks both of her parents are being obnoxious and Big Brother-ish, and often flounces upstairs in protest over some restriction or other.

But it’s a comfort to know that you could, if you insisted, get Mandy’s genie, Johnny-5, named after a childhood hero, to tell you where she is, and who she’s with at any time. You could even tap into her recording camera to see what she’s seeing, as well as scan the area around her, if you really wanted to be obnoxious.

Still, you’re trying to let go, and give her more space. But until she’s 18, you can overrule her wishes, and get whatever information you want from her genie. Knowing that, and that Johnny-5 would contact Robin if Mandy was threatened in any way, gives you enough comfort that you can back off and still feel as if you are fulfilling your paternal duties.

“How am I doing on my diet?”

You’re doing the weekly shopping, and are most of the way through your list when you decide you want to get some cold cereal. You head to the cereal aisle, and tell Robin, “How about that new cereal for which I saw the ad yesterday?”

Robin, of course, knows what you watched, and also noticed what interested you because he monitors your vital signs: heartbeat, breathing rate, galvanic skin response, as well as, in this case, the dilation of your pupils. From this data, he identifies the brand of cereal you’re referring to, and asks, for confirmation, “You mean Happy Clappy Granola Crunch?”

You nod, which he notices and understands.

“Happy Clappy Granola Crunch has too much sugar in four different forms, too much salt, and not enough of the nutrients you need. It’s effectively a dessert, not a breakfast cereal.”

“Yeah,” you reply, “but it probably doesn’t taste like mattress-stuffing, or cardboard, like that other crap you want me to eat. My days are hard enough – I don’t want to deliberately start out with a bad taste in my mouth! Find me something that I will enjoy eating!” you command.

You could swear Robin pauses, which is improbable, and that he’s pursing his lips in disapproval, which is impossible, but you get the message anyway. “You could have low fat, coffee flavored Greek yogurt with flax seeds and slivered almonds,” he proposes.

You’re about to snap your refusal when you stop. That actually sounds interesting. “OK,” you say, “I’ll try it. And how am I doing on my diet, anyway?”

“You’re about a day and a half behind your target profile – mostly because you’ve been cheating at lunch times.”

“Hey! I have not! I’m out with clients, and I have to be sociable! It’s part of my job.”

“You could order sparkling water or club soda instead of wine, you know,” Robin counters.

The conversation goes on, and you grumble – again! – about disloyal junk heaps.

Meanwhile, behind the scenes…

What’s going on behind the scenes at the store is actually far more sophisticated than it appears. Robin estimates the volume of every mouthful of food you take, then calculates all of the nutrients that mouthful contains. This isn’t just calories, sodium, and sugar, but fiber, vitamins, minerals, trace elements, and hundreds of micro-nutrients as well, based on the latest research, cross-referenced for your specific genetic make-up.

When you’re out at a restaurant, he gets all of this information from the restaurant’s computer, including data about where each forkful of food comes from, and what it’s nutritional profile is closely estimated to be. When you’re eating at home, its based on data downloaded either from the food processor’s website, as with Happy Valley Granola Crunch, or, in the case of fresh produce, meat, or fish, from data supplied by the farmer that grew the produce or grew the food animal, or the fisherman that caught the fish. This amazing mass of data far outstrips anything available to consumers, nutritionists, dieticians, or even food scientists today, and is all done by computers handing off data, one to the next. Every step of the way, assessments of nutritional composition are made, checked against comparable records of similar foods from similar (or even the same) producers.

The result is that your genie can finely assess your nutritional needs in a way that has never been possible before – and that can help support optimal health. Food would truly have been transformed into an unbroken string of nutritious compenents – if people didn’t cheat on their diets.

Indeed, the hard part about optimal nutrition is getting people to eat enough of the right things, and to avoid enough of the wrong things. And recently, Robin has been subscribing to an evolutionary algorithm that assesses your human nature, and helps him find ways of getting you to compromise and eat healthier foods. After all, knowing what the best foods to eat are is useless unless you actually eat them, so for Robin to learn how to nudge you onto a better path is better than watching as you continually cheat on the perfect diet.

Humans! What can you do with them? Robin thinks. (Actually, Robin doesn’t think at all – but what he does looks an awful lot like it from the outside.)

The delights and dangers of genie

John Williamson wrote a book called The Humanoids in 1948 in which androids were given the task of “saving man from harm”. Unfortunately, the androids took their instructions literally, with the result that humans were never allowed to do anything that was fun or even remotely dangerous, like walking by the seaside. They became captives of their protectors. And at one extreme, I could imagine that genies could evolve this way.

But there are other risks as well. When we allowed students to use calculators for math, they lost the ability to do math unaided, especially mental math. Some modern fighter planes cannot be flown by human pilots without computer assistance as they are fundamentally unstable, and need constant rebalancing.

The point is that as well as having genies enrich our lives, we will also become dependent on them. If we’re not careful, this will lead to the dumbing-down of humanity, with the result that creativity, initiative, and the spark of innovation could be lost.

Every new technology provides benefits at a cost. Genies will be no exception. And I can hardly wait to have one…

© Copyright, IF Research, March 2016.

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