While the big gurus of futurism are talking about artificial intelligence as a threat to humanity, with this post I would like to focus your attention on a short term amazing application of it. Your next personal assistant will be virtual, cheap and live on your walls.
There are three major trends colliding: the first is the development of artificial intelligence, the second is the promise of OLED screens that can be folded, and the third is the cloud.
AI growth (bottom-up)
If you are a fan of AI, you probably know a lot about its recent developments. What I see from my observatory is that more and more AI is moving from a top-down to a bottom-up approach, using neural networks.
The artificial intelligence based on a top down approach is the one where everything is (pre)codified, so a monumental list of code is written to allow a machine to do everything about a specific topic. People writing software is a bottleneck both in terms of time and costs. The opposite approach is giving a machine as few instructions as possible and let it learn by trial and error, like a baby, simulating networks of artificial neurons that are similar to the neurons in the human brain. It’s a slow process and it requires a continuous interaction between the machine and the external environment.
I’m not saying that one is better than the other, in fact expectation has often been that top-down (symbolic) approaches to modeling cognition for AI will somehow meet bottom-up (sensory) approaches somewhere in between. So, why bottom-up AI is spreading? First because the cost of hiring an army of people writing code is still too high despite the commoditization of such competences; bear in mind that the process of coordinating them and testing their outcome is not easy at all. Second, and more important, because people are now used to machines built to perform a single task and they don’t call it artificial intelligence anymore. The new paradigm is that a learning machine is AI.
OLED price decreasing
The second major trend is about enhanced OLED development. OLED screens are typically composed of a layer of organic materials situated between two electrodes, in other words transistors sandwiched between transparent sheets of plastic. OLEDs provide extremely high image resolution, a wide color spectrum and low energy consumption, all being extremely thin and flexible. If you’re looking for electronic paper, this is the solution under study.
It’s not a new technology, it’s now more than 20 years that is available on the market and before the advent of tablets was almost dead, but now OLEDs are becoming more and more foldable and economic due to increased production volumes. In parallel batteries are becoming more and more efficient and thick, while nanotechnology can guarantee even further enhancements to the technology. Ultimately, the cost of manufacturing an OLED set should become cheaper than an LCD before 2020.
I’m not going to add any obvious comment on the success of cloud computing, but it looks clear to me that if you can have an AI displayed on a low cost OLED screen attached to the wall, whose computational power and storage capacity is cheap in the cloud, you can have a powerful virtual assistant in your home. Or in your smartphone, tablet or modern television set.
We all know that the convergence of technologies is not enough to give birth to a new product. There is another reason why I believe virtual assistants based on AI will spread, and it’s “marketability”. The potential market is huge and the cost of the components is low or almost zero now. Space in the cloud is becoming a commodity, both on App Store and Google Play there are examples of AI assistants that can be downloaded for free and pricing of OLEDs is decreasing. Assuming this product can be positioned between 500 and 1.000 USD, as much as a quality smartphone, every average citizen can be a potential client.
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But what is this assistant going to do?
Today virtual assistants can already read your emails and messages, scan the web to find information and read the news, inform you of any incoming event on your agenda, make phone-calls and wait until the other party answers, remind birthdays and events, read weather forecasts and store information about people or events you want to have easily accessible. In the future, the list of tasks is going to increase dramatically including advanced searching capabilities, travel organization, restaurant booking, payments, instant translations, domotic and house control, music listening, teaching and education, conversation, gaming etc…
My assumption is that you’re going to buy an avatar with basic features and then you’re going to download applications which are going to enhance the AI. Do you want it to play chess with you? There will be an app for it. Do you want to change and customize the appearance of the avatar on the screen? You will download a package to personalize it. Do you think the conversation with your assistant is a bit robotic and boring yet? There will be tools to change the voice, give to virtual assistants some humor, change the face expressions to better simulate emotions etc…
Education and healthcare will be massive drivers to the market grow. Today wearables are having huge success as they are positioned as equipment helping your fitness and your healthcare, so they are useful. Can you imagine calling your avatar and telling him about the ache you feel in your arm, when it started, if it’s recurring and some other details, to receive back a potential diagnosis and a list of medicines good for your problem. And what about your passion about anthropology? You can order a basic course and pay it without touching your credit card, sit in your living room and attend a proper course narrated by your avatar but enriched with videos, graphs and tables.
Conclusion: a replica of the browers war
According to my post How to distinguish disruptive innovations from trendy fads there is just an ingredient missing in the recipe of success for a disruptive innovation: a champion promoting the idea. In reality we have now all the giants working on virtual assistants based upon artificial intelligence, Apple pioneered with Siri, Facebook just announced the M service, Microsoft is powering Cortana and Google has a DeepMind project ongoing and Google Now.
This reminds me the browers and the search engine wars of the 1990s, battles to catch the attention of the user and lock him or her into a solution, which soon became a suite of services. So it’s about marketing and market share again. But it’s huge. Apple purchased Siri in 2010 for $200 million and recently it’s asking to Apple employees to regularly test all the new features of the tool. About M Zuckerberg commented “But the long‐term bet is that by enabling people to have good organic interactions with businesses, that will end up being a massive multiplier on the value of the monetization down the road when we work on that and really focus on that in a bigger way. So, we asked for some patience on this to do this correctly”. Also Amazon has entered the competition creating Alexa a fund worth $100 million investment, to develop a personal assistant (Alexa obviously), ready to help you in your shopping. We just need to stay tuned.
Newsletter: because there’s much more than virtual assistants here!
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