Who’s Afraid of Artificial Intelligence?

AI will make our devices obsolete. What does that mean for human relationships to technology?

By Navneet Alang
May 26, 2016

Would it be an exaggeration to say we caress our smartphones? Our connection to them is emotional: We paw at them idly and endlessly. There are times when your phone can be your best friend.

That might soon change. Google and Microsoft are betting big on artificially intelligent helpers—not like Apple’s Siri, which is stuck only on its products, but a device-agnostic digital personality that follows you wherever you go. As Google’s founders put it in their annual letter: “[O]ver time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.” The smartphone could soon become obsolete. Dematerialized.

Right now, we use phones because they’re the fastest way to get all of our stuff: messages, contacts, photos, music, documents, and the like. For all the talk of the cloud, there’s still a very real need for a device to access online life. The tech giants think we should be more sci-fi—as with Samantha, the artificial intelligence from the movie Her. Google and Microsoft and newcomers like Viv Labs (the original creators of Apple’s Siri) each want to be the first to create an affordable, ethereal presence with persistent access to both the Web and personal data. These AIs should be able to predict what you need, and then carry out the tasks themselves. If these tech companies get what they hope for, AIs will be the new site of digital life.

That desire is driven by deeply material concerns: We’re nearly a decade into the smartphone era and Apple now commands 94 percent of mobile profits. Along with Google, it dominates the market. Facebook, on the other hand, is the behemoth in advertising and media. AI is an attempt to break these sorts of strangleholds; Microsoft could challenge Apple’s and Google’s mobile dominance, while Google might win Apple’s enormous profits. It’s also the reason noted Apple watcher Marco Arment recently warned that the company is on the way to becoming the next Blackberry. While Apple has made enormous profits from the iPhone, it has let others get a head start on artificial intelligence. Siri, their digital assistant, lags behind and is tied to Apple’s hardware. Microsoft’s Cortana, on the other hand, works across its own products, any smartphone, and soon, its Xbox console. If the smartphone does become obsolete, it will be because companies are looking to disrupt business models that don’t work for them.

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