her-joaquin-phoenix-7

Talk to me, human!

How AI will change the world as we know it. 

Seasoned travellers know how it happens—just one cancelled flight and you’re done.

If it’s not a simple “there and back” journey, only one change in your schedule is capable of making all other flights, hotel bookings, and business meetings fall like dominoes.

It can be a real bummer, unless you’re Tony Stark with Pepper Potts as your secretary.

Well, I’m not Iron Man, but for a few weeks, I’ve been something even better—a Mission Control user. So this time, when my flight was cancelled, it hardly left a ripple in my travel routine.

When I woke up on the day of departure to find my flight cancelled, I received a notification on my phone offering me a few updated options for the whole trip—up to the final meeting. One tap on the option I liked the most and everything was taken care of. I had new tickets, bookings, and table reservations in my inbox.

That was just the icing on the cake, since I hadn’t spent hours looking for options and filling out forms online anyway. I just messaged Mission Control where I wanted to be and when, just as I would tell it to Ms. Potts if I were Tony—and everything was arranged for me by a chatbot. 35 euros a month for the service makes that almost miraculous.

Disclaimer: I´m friends with Katrin Zimmermann (co-founder at Lufthansa Innovation Hub, which launched Mission Control). That was the reason I tried the service, but that wasn’t the reason why it amazed me. For me, this raised the question: can’t everything in life be solved the same way—fast, naturally, and effortlessly? Shopping? Bills? Daily chores?

Actually, it can. And I’m sure that very soon, it definitely will be. More and more “miracles” are coming our way. The rise of artificial intelligence makes all that not just possible but inevitable.

When people think about AI, they usually imagine a humanoid robot like we’ve seen over and over again in movies. And I have no doubt that someday, humanity will be able to make such creations (though as Ex Machina’s narrative suggests, we should be careful with that). Believe it or not, long before that happens, AI will become part and parcel of our daily lives.

Making a machine capable of handling endless tasks and situations looks like a long shot today. But even now, AI can deal with three important tasks: processing human language, plowing through enormous amounts of data, and connecting to other devices and services. That makes it possible to create a pretty powerful AI that can manage a single, narrowly focused task—such as making arrangements for a trip, for example.

Today, Mission Control is mostly human-powered. But you don’t have to be the founder’s friend to see where it’s headed. This GIF gives you a glimpse into the not-so-distant future.

Gradually, more and more user requests will be processed by AI, starting from basic questions like “Is there a flight to Barcelona tomorrow morning?” on to trickier requests like “I need digs in downtown Stockholm for three days, not pricey, but with breakfast and air conditioning, in walking distance from a grocery store and subway station.”

Eventually, AI will be responsible for 99% of user requests, leaving managers to deal with only the most complicated cases. At the same, it will reduce the quantity of interactions by dealing with issues by itself and working in the background (like it did while solving my problem with the cancelled flight). The user will just have to send a request and leave all the headaches to the machine.

We’re so used to looking at screens and tapping buttons that sometimes it doesn’t occur to us that speaking to a machine is much more convenient, natural, and faster—if the machine can understand us. Well, today, it’s learning faster than a toddler learns how to walk and laugh.

More and more startups are venturing into this new field. AI-powered Taylor helps you make arrangements for your trips too. Operator helps you buy stuff you need, from a bouquet of roses for your mother to a sofa for your new apartment. Magic+ can deal not only with travel arrangements, but with party preparations or online research. Clara schedules your meetings. (For more examples, check this list.)

The messaging nature of the services may be deceiving. It looks like chat is the point, but it’s not. Thanks to voice recognition, very soon, there won’t be any difference between talking and texting—users will just be choosing which is most convenient for them at the moment. And the real deal will happen when AI kicks in and takes over the largest chunk of the job. It will make scaling the whole thing possible, like any other online service. The scale will drive the price down, making it even more affordable.

Boom!

Suddenly, you wake up in a world where you can just say out loud what you need to get done—and it’s done.

Make no mistake. This trend won’t be confined to mobile services, trendy gadgets, or even a few hot tech markets like the self-driving car industry. Everything that needs to be dealt with can and will be done through voice commands—and AI will process them without any human assistance.

So we won’t be looking at screens and pushing buttons, we’ll be talking to things much smarter than we are.

Kettle, boil the water! ATM, give me 20 bucks! Elevator, get us to the 21st floor! (I guess we should give cool names to all these things; after all, Tony had Jarvis.) Don’t forget automation—an important part of AI. So in the last example, you probably won’t need to say anything, at least at your residence—the elevator will recognize you and go to the floor you need.

It’s happening. All the big guys are in.

First was Apple with its Siri for iOS introduced more than four years ago. Now it’s on Apple TV, and this year it’s coming to Mac (voice control over Macbook is the most important upgrade made to MacOS). The company is also opening Siri’s API for developers, which will make it even more powerful.

For at least a year, Amazon’s been moving in the same direction with its Amazon Echo, allowing third-party developers and device-makers to integrate with Alexa (which helps it win rave reviews).

Google joined the party this yearat I/O, its annual conference for developers, the company presented an Echo-like product called Google Home. It’s just the tip of the iceberg. “Machine learning is a core, transformative way by which we’re rethinking how we’re doing everything”, says Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai.

Finally, Facebook definitely doesn’t want to be left behind. That’s why it now has Facebook M.

Basically, if you look at any of these companies, you’ll see that today, their R&D maps are dominated by AI. Artificial Intelligence is the next big thing that can be bigger than mobile and the cloud. And VCs are betting big money on it.

It’s a tectonic shift for everyone who makes stuff—designers, engineers, entrepreneurs. Everything changes. People’s expectations are skyrocketing. Business models are being transformed, if not destroyed (many people will be forced out of their jobs). Our daily lives will be completely different because interactions with services and objects are becoming less dependent on outdated (slow and complicated) user interfaces.

To see the whole picture, let’s add another way of interacting with a machine in a natural way—with gestures. Check what’s in the works in Ultrahaptics or Google’s Soli and it will become clear that we’re witnessing the last days of the world we geeks love so much—the one filled with screens, buttons, keyboards, and apps.

It can be hard to believe it now, being surrounded by these digital interfaces. But if you’re working on anything that is supposed to be sold in the near future, whether it’s a gadget, a service, or even something as unwired as a kitchen table, you’d better be thinking now about how AI, along with voice commands and the automation that comes with it, will change your market. Machines are coming, and ignoring this future can be destructive.

A fact from history: the first cars were equipped with tillers. Obviously, automobiles inherited them from boats—the tiller looked like an obvious choice for the job in the beginning. But it wasn’t. The modern car came to life when the tiller was replaced with the steering wheel, which was a real game-changer. After being first used in 1894, the steering wheel had entirely replaced the tiller in cars within a decade.

It’s pointless to cling to outdated technology, no matter how much we love it. Ten years ago, Blackberry couldn’t believe that the screen can be a better input interface than the keyboard. And where are they now? Keyboards, screens, and buttons have done a great job for us. But it’s time to move on.

PS: Does all that mean that designers will be out of a job like the stock news reporters? If you think that design is about how things look, then the answer is yes. But you’re safe if you agree with Steve Jobs, who once said, “Design is not just what it looks like and feels like. Design is how it works.”