The year is 2026 and Justin Bieber’s post-rehab comeback single begins to blare over your condo’s speakers.
“Ah! Okay, okay, I’m up!”
“Good morning, Amy. Are you sure you’re awake?”
“Yes! Dear god.”
The song stops the second you roll out of bed. By then, the blinds have opened themselves and the morning light splashes into the room as you drag yourself to the bathroom. The light turns on as you enter.
“So, what’s up today, Sam?”
A holographic, see-through dashboard display appears overtop your bathroom mirror as you brush your teeth.
“Today, the morning temperature is 14 degrees Celsius and will reach a midday high of 19 degrees. Your green coat should be enough to keep you warm. Traffic is high due to road closures, so I uploaded an alternate route to Uber’s nav system. The car will be waiting for you downstairs in 40 minutes.
“You have eight new social media notifications today, none from your closest friends. One of your acquaintance level friends, Sandra Baxter, has a birthday today.”
You stop your electric toothbrush. “Did you —”
“Your standard birthday wish message was sent to her thirty minutes ago. A “like” was registered from Sandra on that message two minutes afterwards.”
Always the attention whore, you recall. You carry on brushing.
“You have three new personal emails, minus the spam I deleted. None are marked as urgent. You also have 53 new work emails. Seven are direct emails. Five are marked as urgent.
“No substantial political or sports news to report this morning. But the marketing news feed reports that Facebook announced newly enhanced holographic ad units today.”
‘Great,’ you think to yourself while splashing water on your face. Another new toy you’ll have to pretend to be an expert at during today’s client meeting at the office.
You walk towards the kitchen, following the scent of the freshly brewed coffee your coffee maker prepared the second you woke up. Sam follows over the house speakers.
“In entertainment news, a Maroon 5 reunion tour date was announced for Toronto on April 17th. Tickets are $110 for your usual center balcony seating. Do I have your permission to purchase a ticket when it becomes available?”
“Yup. Buy two please.” You take a long, satisfying drag of your coffee.
“The purchase is now in pre-order. Meanwhile, your Wealthfront index fund has appreciated in value by 0.023 percent since yesterday. The last update is an event invitation from your work colleague, Nella Albini, to a networking event at the AGO museum tonight at 8 p.m.”
‘Ugh, another industry event.’ You start walking back to your bedroom to get dressed. “Reply that I have some kind of event conflict.”
“Understood. But after analyzing the guest list, you might want to know that one of your persons of interest, Patrick Bednarski, will be in attendance.”
Your heart skips a beat. “Actually, yeah, Sam, tell Nella I’m coming.”
Who the heck was Sam?
The scenario above details your potential future should you allow it to be managed by an emerging network system called Virtual Assistants (VAs). These VAs function similarly to the personal assistants the rich and powerful employ today to help run their busy lives, but with the rise of big data and machine intelligence, the benefits personal assistants offer celebrities will soon be enjoyed by the masses, largely for free.
Big data and machine intelligence are both topics that will soon have a massive and wide-ranging impact on society—that’s why they’ll be mentioned throughout this series. For this chapter, we’ll briefly touch on both for the sake of our discussion on VAs.
What is big data anyway?
Big data is a technical buzzword that’s recently grown quite popular in tech circles. It’s a term that generally refers to the collection and storage of a giant horde of data, a horde so large that only supercomputers can chew through it. We’re talking data at the petabyte scale (one million gigabytes).
Collecting lots of data isn’t exactly new. It’s the way this data is being collected and the way it’s being used that makes big data so exciting. Today, more than any time in history, everything is being monitored and tracked—text, audio, video from our cell phones, the Internet, CCTV cameras—it’s all being watched and measured. We’ll discuss this further in the next part of this series, but the point is that our world is being consumed electronically.
In the past, all this data was impossible to sort through, but with each passing year better algorithms, coupled with increasingly powerful supercomputers, have allowed governments and corporations to connect the dots and find patterns in all this data. These patterns then allow organizations to better execute three important functions: Control increasingly complex systems (like city utilities and corporate logistics), improve existing systems (general government services and flight path planning), and predict the future (weather and financial forecasting).
As you can imagine, the applications for big data are immense. It will allow organizations of all kinds to make better decisions about the services and systems they manage. But big data will also play a big role in helping you make better decisions about how you run your life.
Big data leads to machine intelligence or primitive artificial intelligence?
It’s important to emphasize that in the past humans were responsible for analyzing reams of data charts and trying to make sense of them. Today, the now commonplace union of software and hardware has allowed computers to assume this responsibility. To make this happen, scientists and engineers built computers with the analytical abilities of humans, thereby creating a new form of intelligence.
Now, before you leap to any assumptions, let’s be clear: we’re talking about the field of machine intelligence (MI). With MI, we have a network of software systems that can collect and interpret large data sets to then make recommendations or take actions independent of a human manager. Instead of the self-aware artificial intelligence (AI) you see in movies, we’re talking about a turbocharged tool or utility designed to assist humans when needed, not when it pleases. (To be fair, a lot of writers, including myself, use MI and AI interchangeably.)
Now that we have a basic understanding of big data and MI, let’s explore how they’ll work together to make your life easier.
How virtual assistants work
Your texts, your emails, your social posts, your web browsing and search history, the work you perform, who you call, where you go and how you travel, what home appliances you use and when, how you exercise, what you watch and listen to, even how you sleep—on any given day, the modern individual is generating huge amounts of data, even if he or she lives the simplest of lives. This is big data on a little scale.
Future VAs will use all of this data to better understand you with the goal of helping you accomplish your daily tasks more effectively. In fact, you may have already used early versions of VAs: Google Now, Apple’s Siri, or Microsoft’s Cortana.
Each of these companies have a range of services or apps to help you collect, store, and use a treasure trove of personal data. Take Google for example. Creating a single Google account gives you access to its large ecosystem of free services—search, email, storage, maps, images, calendar, music and more—that are accessible from any web-enabled device. Every action you take on these services (thousands per day) is recorded and stored in a “personal cloud” inside Google’s server farms. With enough use, Google begins to understand your preferences and habits with the end goal of using “anticipatory systems” to provide you with information and services you need, when you need it, before you even think to ask for it.
Seriously, VAs will become a big deal
I know what you’re thinking. ‘I already know all this, I use this stuff all the time. But aside from a few helpful suggestions here and there, I don’t feel like I’m being helped by an invisible assistant.’ And you might be right.
Today’s VA services are infants compared to what they will one day become. And to be fair, the amount of data they collect about you is still fairly limited. That’s set to change very soon—all thanks to the smartphone you carry around in your pocket or purse, and increasingly around your wrist.
Smartphone penetration is exploding around the world, especially in developing countries. Today’s smartphones are packed with powerful and once overly-expensive sensors like accelerometers, compasses, radios, and gyroscopes that collect ever more detailed data about your activities. This revolution in hardware is being matched by heady advances in software, such as natural language recognition. We might struggle with current VAs misunderstanding what we want when we ask them a question or issue a command, but by 2020 that will be rare thanks to the introduction of semantic search.
Rise of semantic search
In the last chapter of this Future of the Internet series, we explored how search engines are shifting toward truth-based search results over results derived from popularity scores based on backlinks. However, what we left out was a second major shift in how search results will soon be generated: Enter the rise of semantic search.
Future semantic search will try to decipher the full context (intentions, meaning, even the emotions) behind the words users type or dictate into search fields. Once search algorithms advance to this level, new possibilities emerge.
For example, say you ask your search engine, ‘Where can I buy modern furniture?’ If your search engine knows that you’re in your early twenties, that you normally search for value-priced goods, and that you’re beginning to access the web from a different city than you did last month (thereby implying a recent move), it may present IKEA furniture higher up in the search results than results from more upscale furniture retailers.
Let’s take it up a notch—say you search for ‘gift ideas for runners.’ Given your email history, the search engine might know that you communicate with three people who are active runners (based on their own web search and browsing history), that one of these three people has a birthday coming up in two weeks, and that person has recently and frequently looked at pictures of the latest Reebok running shoe. A direct purchase link for that shoe might then appear at the top of your search results, above the standard top ten advice articles.
Obviously, for these scenarios to work, you and your network would need to opt into allowing search engines further access to your personal metadata. Terms of Service and Privacy setting changes still currently receive skeptical heckling, but frankly, once VAs (including the search engines and cloud supercomputers that power them) reach this level of complexity, most people will opt in out of convenience.
How VAs will enhance your life
Just like the story you read earlier on, your future VA will act as your guardian, personal assistant, and coworker. But for the future generations who grow up with VAs from birth to death, these VAs will assume a deeper role as their virtual confidants and friends. They will even replace traditional search engines in most cases.
The jury is still out on whether all this extra VA assistance (or dependence) will make you smarter or dumber. They will seek out and take over the regular and mundane aspects of your life, so you can focus your mind on more engaging or entertaining tasks. They will help you before you ask them to and they will answer your questions before you even think of them. Their goal will be to help you live a seamless life.
Who will rule the VA Game of Thrones?
VAs won’t just pop into existence. Development of VAs will cost billions—billions top Silicon Valley corporations will happily invest due to the social and financial upside they know these VAs will bring them. But the market share these different VA providers will snag will largely depend on the computer ecosystems the public uses.
For example, Apple users generally use Apple desktops or laptops at home and Apple phones outdoors, all while using Apple apps and software in between. With all these Apple devices and software connected and working together within the Apple ecosystem, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Apple users will likely end up using Apple’s VA: A future, beefed up version of Siri.
Non-Apple users, however, will see more competition for their business.
Google already has a sizeable advantage in the machine learning field. Because of their globally dominant search engine, the popular ecosystem of cloud-based services like Chrome, Gmail, and Google Docs, and Android (the world’s largest mobile operating system), Google has access to over 1.5 billion smartphone users. This is why heavy Google and Android users will likely choose a future version of Google’s VA system, Google Now, to power their lives.
While seen as an underdog due to its near non-existent market share in the smartphone market, Microsoft’s operating system, Windows, is still the dominant operating system among personal desktops and laptops. With its 2015 rollout of Windows 10, billions of Windows users around the world will be introduced to Microsoft’s VA, Cortana. Active Windows users will then have an incentive to download Cortana into their iOS or Android phones to ensure everything they do within the Windows ecosystem gets shared with their smartphones on the go.
While tech giants Google, Apple, and Microsoft battle it out for VA supremacy, that doesn’t necessarily mean there won’t be space for secondary VAs to join the market. Just like you read in the opening story, your VA can help you both in your professional and social life, not just as a utility for your personal basic needs.
Think about it, for privacy, security, and productivity reasons, most companies today limit or forbid their office employees from actively using the external web or social media while at the office. Based on this reality, it’s unlikely that companies a decade from now will be comfortable with hundreds of super-powered VAs interfacing with their internal networks or “managing” their employees on company time.
This leaves an opening for smaller B2B businesses to enter the market, offering enterprise-friendly VAs to improve and more closely monitor workforce productivity, without the security vulnerabilities posed by the larger B2C VA providers. From the employee perspective, these VAs will help them work smarter and safer, while also acting as a bridge between their connected work-selves and connected personal selves.
Now, perhaps unsurprisingly, Facebook pops up again. In the last chapter for this series, we mentioned how Facebook will likely enter the search engine market, competing against Google’s fact-focused semantic search engine with a sentiment-focused semantic search engine. Well, in the field of VAs, Facebook can also make a big splash.
Facebook knows more about your friends and your relationships with them than Google, Apple, and Microsoft together ever will. Initially built to compliment your primary Google, Apple, or Microsoft VA, Facebook’s VA will tap into your social network graph to help you manage and even improve your social life. It’ll do this by encouraging and scheduling more frequent and engaging virtual and face-to-face interactions with your friend network.
Over time, it’s not hard to imagine Facebook’s VA knowing enough about your personality and social habits to even join your circle of true friends as a distinct virtual person, one with its own personality and interests that reflect your own.
How VAs will generate income for its masters
Everything you read above is all well and good, but the question remains: How will these tech companies make bank from their multi-billion dollar investments into VAs?
To answer this, it’s helpful to think of VAs as brand mascots for their respective companies, with their primary goal being to draw you deeper into their ecosystems by offering you services you can’t live without. An easy example of this is the modern Apple user. It’s widely advertised that to get the most benefit from Apple products and services, you really need to use all their services exclusively. And it’s largely true. The more you use Apple’s suite of devices, software, and apps, the deeper you’re drawn into their ecosystem. The longer you stay, the harder it becomes to leave because of the time you’ve invested into customizing Apple’s services and learning its particular software. And once you reach this level of cultdom, you’re more likely to emotionally identify with Apple products, pay a premium for new Apple products, and evangelize Apple products to your network. Next generation VAs are simply the newest and shiniest toy to pull you deeper into that web.
(Oh, I almost forgot: with the rise of Apple Pay and Google Wallet there could come a day when these companies attempt to replace traditional credit cards altogether. This means if you’re an Apple or Google user, whenever you or your VA buys anything on credit, these tech giants could take a cut.)
VAs will help you talk to your home
By 2020, super-powered VAs will debut on the market, gradually educating global smartphone users about how they can improve their lives, while also (finally) popularizing voice-based interfaces. A drawback, however, is that these VAs will remain limited to assisting you with those products and services that are both connected to the Internet (web-enabled) and free to access. Surprisingly, much of the world continues to lack these two qualities, remaining invisible to the consumer-friendly web.
But things are changing quickly. As we mentioned earlier, the physical world is being consumed electronically to a point where every physical object will become web-enabled. And by the mid to late 2020s, this Internet of Everything will open up whole new opportunities for VAs to assist you throughout your day-to-day life. This could mean your VA remotely drives your car while you sit in the backseat or even controls your house utilities and electronics through simple voice commands.
These possibilities only scratch the surface of what the Internet will soon make possible. Next up in our Future of the Internet series, we’ll further explore the Internet of Everything and how it will reshape global ecommerce—and even the Earth itself.
Future of the Internet series
Mobile Internet Reaches the Poorest Billion: Future of the Internet P1
The Next Social Web vs. Godlike Search Engines: Future of the Internet P2
Your Future Inside the Internet of Things: Future of the Internet P4
The Day Wearables Replace Smartphones: Future of the Internet P5
Virtual Reality and the Global Hive Mind: Future of the Internet P7
Humans not allowed. The AI-only Web: Future of the Internet P8
Geopolitics of the Unhinged Web: Future of the Internet P9