Sometimes, we forget how fast technology changes and how much these changes have impacted our lives. It was only in 2007, 15 years ago, when the first iPhone was introduced. The device, when looked at today, surprises us with its limited features. It was a slow, small and pixelated device, with no external apps, no 3G, no even GPS, and yet its touch interface took the world by storm and made it possible for computers to reach people that had no access and reach places computers had never been. Today, for people from around the globe, business, private lives, and even wars have become unthinkable without the smartphone.
The Big Question: What Is Going To Happen In The Next 15 Years?
Is there a technology that will change how we interact with computers as profoundly as the smartphone did? The iPhone did not suddenly fall from the sky. Smartphones had been demonstrated as early as 1994 and both more capable phones and multitouch technology (e.g. by Jeff Han), were developed at the time. Usually, we can see technology, or parts of it, emerging before it reaches a wider audience. In today’s world, we see two technology contenders that promise to change how we will interact with computers and impact our lives in the coming years.
Candidate One: The Metaverse
The first candidate is the metaverse, a trend to say that soon we will spend a lot of time in a virtual, computer-rendered, game-like, three-dimensional simulation. In a way, this trend is a continuation or extreme version of what we already have. Instead of gluing our attention to the screens of our smartphones (and mentally zooming ourselves from the physical environment into the social streams of the world), we will cover our eyes completely with glasses and virtually travel through a three-dimensional world where we can interact with virtual representations of the people we meet. We can spend even more time online, and give even less attention to our good old physical world. In a more lightweight variant of the metaverse, the virtual world is not fully disconnected from our world but augments our physical reality. We will run around the world with glasses that continuously project some information onto our world so that, finally, there is no more hassle of unlocking our smartphones. Given how companies could profit from selling us the new eye-covering devices and showing us advertisements during the time we spend online, it is no wonder that a company like Facebook went so far to change its name to Meta, and that Apple, soon, is said to release augmented reality glasses, as a new category of a device for the masses.
Candidate Two: Artificial Intelligence
The second candidate of a revolutionary computing technology is artificial intelligence. Long thought of as an impossible dream of some minority computer scientists, the increased performance of computers combined with the availability of big data streams makes it possible to program computers in ways that mimic organic brains. Instead of just sending text, numbers, images and video through the internet for us, computers can now understand content and meaning. Machine learning models can predict how data can be described, classified, summarized. While in many cases, these models and artificial intelligence remain a hidden and somewhat mysterious thing that we do not touch, we increasingly get closer to AI. Interestingly, this technology does not have an inherent mode of human interaction. It is up to us to design our way of interacting with AI. AI, however, features characteristics that we need to consider. On the one hand, AI-empowered computers can use their intelligence to better understand us. Computers may listen to us, understand what we say and observe our behavior to derive our context and needs. When we ask Apple’s Siri, for example, about the weather, the digital assistant understands our request and connects it to our location data. On the other hand, AI-empowered computers are better able to work without us and make sense of the world. Once they get a task, they can continuously monitor their environment and make decisions on their own, for instance when to inform us humans about an unusual, noteworthy event. This is when we call software an intelligent agent. A software becomes an agent when it acts autonomously on our behalf, sensing the environment around it. We can give a task to an agent such as: “Please monitor my business environment and let our team know if my competitors do anything of relevance”, and the agent can permanently work on the task, collecting information about the competitive landscape, as well as the evolution of our company. There are no limits to what agents can do for us. Agents might autonomously send messages, control devices, buy goods, prepare presentations, organize travel or analyze markets.
How Do These Two Big Technologies Connect?
On a first glance the metaverse and AI have not much in common, they almost seem orthogonal to each other. After all, we could very well interact with our intelligent agents in a metaverse, as we can easily imagine virtual avatars that are AI-driven agents, who act on our behalf. On a second glance, there is a fundamental issue that makes these trends incompatible: The metaverse (and the organizations who drive it) want us to spend more of our time in their systems. Intelligent agents, on the other hand, might dramatically reduce the time we spend interacting with computers. Intelligent agents, also, are not easily persuaded with advertisements, endangering the business models of many tech giants. Just like any president who has a team that manages the calendar carefully and sorts and prepares the information that gets through, our agents can shield us from endless scrolling and searching, for business data, on social media, when looking for the next best vacation, a house, a job or a partner. In the end, it does not make a big difference how we interact with our agents. Indeed, the agents might just adapt to our preferences and the task at hand and interact with us through voice, text messages, as well as graphical user interfaces—even in combination. As computers become more autonomous, the interface becomes less and less important. As for the metaverse, it just does not seem to make a lot of sense for a human to wait in a metaverse simulation for the intelligent agent to return its results. We might enjoy our time in the virtual world, just like we play games or wander through a shopping street, but intelligent agents will also allow us to go for a run, enjoy a coffee, chat with our friends, do gardening, or read a book, while they do our work.
What Will The Future Bring?
First, from the past we can learn that the future that actually happens is not always the “more of the same”-future we imagine. A friend of mine once told me that in his youth, in the 1970s, it was very obvious for everyone that in the year 2000 we will be able to travel from Germany to New York City in no time, simply, because this generation witnessed a tremendous increase in transportation speed. Interestingly, not much has changed since then in commercial airspeed and today we cruise at the exact same speed across the Atlantic (and even slower, when taking into account the Concord hypersonic aircraft). At the same time, my friend said, in the 1970s he never imagined that people would find interest in sharing their personal photos and stories with thousands of people online and happily count their virtual friends, followers and likes. Maybe we will not spend more time at our computers?
Second, and more philosophically, this is not the first time that we face a prediction that the world will be dominated by computer simulation technology. Already in 1991 when scientist and visionary Mark Weiser published his article “The Computer for the 21st Century”, he argued that we can learn from sociology and his colleague Lucy Suchman that there is no such thing as “the world” that we can model, instead, every individual constructs a subjective world: The world you experience is not the same world that I experience. In consequence, Mark argued that computers should be embedded into our world and become ubiquitous. His work and vision caused a whole generation of computer scientists to build the sensors and microcomputers that make up the technology which we call Internet of Things (IoT) today.
Phenomenological post-modernism explained and related to computer science, in cartoons. Redrawn from Weiser, M., 1996.
Third, and probably most importantly, we must think about the future that we wish to create for ourselves. The famous computer scientist Alan Kay once said: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”. Maybe I just enjoy (and sometimes miss in the startup life) reading a good book, having a conversation with an old friend, playing with my kids too much, but I can’t help thinking that a future in which computers will do more for us, in which we need to spend much less time at our screens, sounds way more attractive than a future in which all my family sits at home behind 3D glasses.
In 1997, in a town hall meeting, Steve Jobs was asked by a person in the audience about when Apple will start working on computers that will do more for us, “intelligent agents” that will revolutionize computing in the same way the graphical user interface did. Steve Jobs responded that the “agent world” is research you can “read about it” and not touch, and that it would be foolish to bet the future of the company on this risky idea. In the times that followed, as you probably know, Apple continued to introduce the iMac and, some years later, the iPhone that we started this very article with.
At AGENTS.inc, in our (obviously very biased) interpretation, we think that the time has come to finally realize what people have been dreaming about for a long time. Every day (and during many nights) we work to make sure that you all will very soon have agents available that can work on your behalf. Our goal is that in 15 years, you will think back to our time, and be confused about how it was even possible that we gave away so much of our time to our not-so-smart-phones while searching, browsing and seeing advertisements, instead of using our valuable life time to positively impact the world around us.
Our R&D efforts into the future of computing have been partially funded by the German Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) and the European Social Fund (ESF) as part of the “Future of Work” program (funding code: 02L18A140).