Future forecasts

Forecasts for news and media well BEYOND 2014: be-all digital assistants

By Steve Outing


The traditional onslaught of 2014 predictions by media and technology writers and pundits is (almost?) over. You’ve probably read many or some of them, and it’s typical for the authors to make predictions about the year ahead. (E.g., Nick Bilton of the New York Times predicts that smartwatches are going to be a big deal in 2014, and will perform some functions previously the domain of your mobile phone.)

I am not going to do that. Rather, let’s raise the wire even higher up, and peer further out at news and media futures.

The “predictions” presented below are about what we might expect by 2020, 2025, or 2030. … Actually, let’s not use the p-word. Looking out a single year is “easy” compared to trying to discern what’s likely to occur multiple years out. The further out you look, the more that unanticipated events, technology advancements, and societal changes can nullify or twist a forecast. (See the “Cone of Plausibility” if you want to understand more deeply.) … In other words, I’m not going to feel bad if some of my forecasts turn out, a decade from now, to be off.

The exercise still is worth doing, since a knowledgeable forecast multiple years ahead can be useful in encouraging people, companies, and industries to make decisions and move toward a projected future if it’s a desirable one — or work to avoid it and try to create an alternative future if the forecast is a bleak one.

Get inspired by ‘Her’

I love (good) science fiction; always have. So I’m eagerly awaiting the movie “Her” (caution: plot spoilers in that link), which opens in my area on January 10. It’s already playing in some major U.S. cities. I’ve watched enough preview clips, trailers, and reviews to grasp the fictional technology that drives the plot, and it points to some changes in the years ahead that will significantly impact relationships, news, and media (though the movie focuses on the human-relationships-in-the-digital-age angle).

Theo wearing ear communicator

Her’s Theo character wears an ear device to communicate with his digital personal assistant, “Samantha.”

Quickly, the plot: Sometime in the near future, a man who is recently divorced and emotionally reeling acquires a new computer OS (operating system) that runs on artificial intelligence (AI). With the OS having the ability to learn and grow, get to know its “operator” and his needs and preferences, and even figure out how to “love” and become jealous, the hero (Joaquin Phoenix, playing sensitive writer Theo) develops a meaningful relationship with his handy and smart, knows-everything AI digital companion, which has its own human-like personality.

Unlike the many movies and TV programs of the AI genre that envision a world of robot companions and helpers (e.g., Almost Human and its AI-driven human-appearing android police officers/helpers), “Samantha,” the AI “being” played by a sultry-voiced Scarlett Johannsen, exists as code and algorithms inside Theo’s computer and the cloud. There’s no physical Samantha made of silicon chips; she’s an OS, personalized for Theo (and many other people).

Samantha can be Theo’s companion outside the confines of his home simply enough, as a voice inside Theo’s head who he can talk with. Theo wears an earpiece to hear Samantha’s words, and she hears his. Theo even carries what looks like a smartphone in his shirt pocket with a camera lens sticking out so that Samantha sees what Theo sees, wherever he is (thus absorbing more data about Theo’s life in order to be a better companion and personal assistant).

A plausible future

Based on existing technology and advancements already in play, I feel confident in suggesting that the Her scenario is plausible and indeed a likely future. I’ll take a pass on predicting that we flesh-and-blood types will fall in love with our AI creations, whether in physical or purely digital form (i.e., the Samantha OS).

But a number of elements in the story fit with what we’re seeing come out of the labs and technology companies today:

  • Truly personalized, cloud-based operating systems. Look no further than Google Now to see the trend toward more sophisticated artificial personal assistants that learn about you over time and get better at predicting what you want. If we make the assumption that these personal assistants will get more powerful as they evolve, and that they can always be with you, a Her-like scenario is probable.
  • More human-like communication with our digital personal assistants. Speech recognition and natural language processing continue to advance, and in the context of human-AI interaction, it’s plausible that by 2020 (or 2030 …) we’ll be long done with keyboards and screen-tapping, and simply talk with our personal assistants as we would another human. Some futurists believe that a human will be able to have the human-AI interface chip implanted in the skull; i.e., a true voice in your head.
  • The AI that’s always with you. We’re already on that road, though it’s still early. Much of our digital communication, stored material, and digital lifestream is available and synched across devices: smartphone, tablet, PC, etc. By the time that technologists have created a truly useful personal assistant, we’ll be able to communicate with it, ask questions, and make requests from nearly anywhere: sitting at a PC or in front of a large video screen (formerly known as your television); anywhere you happen to be on a handheld mobile device, which we also will use to read books and watch movies, and much more; in our cars, when today’s GPS navigation systems have advanced and are capable of connecting to the cloud; via smartglasses (of which Google Glass is the early indicator); or through a tiny ear device like that worn by Theo in the movie, wirelessly tethered to a phone or other pocket-size device which provides the power and connectivity unable to be fit into a tiny in-ear device.

Essentially, what we’re heading toward is a powerful, AI-based, personalized computer that’s with you constantly, always ready with an answer or to fulfill a request. (Quick reality check: An alternative future is that much of society rejects such close integration between human and machine, or gets scared by it, and what I’m describing does not become as ubiquitous as mobile phones are to us today. Or AI advances, but the cost gets stuck too high to be used by anyone other than the super wealthy.)

Implications: the media consumer

Media companies need to think about this future, because it will have a major impact on them, and they will need to react. A powerful Samantha-like personal assistant (let’s say without the emotional capabilities and quirks) should be able to get you anything on demand. “Samantha: What’s the weather going to be like for the next two days in Atlanta? Also, please confirm my reservation at the Atlanta Hyatt; get me a window seat on my Delta flight; and suggest a highly rated vegan restaurant within walking distance of my hotel.” … “Samantha: I want to re-watch the final episode of Breaking Bad; send it to my iPad9 and I’ll watch it on my flight.” … “Samantha: Identify today’s major technology stories and read a summary to me while I shower. Make it 5 minutes long, and make sure to include news about Twitter.” … “Samantha: What did my family members post to Facebook and Twitter within the last day? Show any photos or videos on the bathroom mirror.” …

What you may notice in this future scenario is that media is consumed in bits and pieces, across multiple personal platforms. Samantha’s condensed summary of tech news, for instance, will be pulled from multiple sources; she/it will find the most credible sources and rank recent tech-news events in order of importance, including technologies and companies that you have interest in. Samantha will know what you’ve already read or heard and not repeat those stories; and she/it will automatically include follow-up developments to stories that you are tracking (including corrections to an earlier story that you read or heard).

An alternative scenario is that the majority of media consumers will stick with trusted brands (e.g., NY Times, CNN) rather than be source-promiscuous. But even today the trend is toward news consumers pulling content from many brands and sources, so this seems unlikely. Further, as media-credibility services evolve, our digital personal assistants will be trusted to select from the best and most credible of media, making “promiscuity” safer.

If there are lessons for today to be learned from looking so far ahead, they are that the future of media consumption will require media and news companies to: 1) provide “atomized” content across more and more platforms, eventually including AI-smart personal assistants; 2) develop business models to make money from small, individual pieces of content, including making it attractive, findable, and credible enough for advanced digital personal assistants to select it; and 3) recognize that information-credibility services and smarter search algorithms will be unforgiving of low quality, mistruths, inaccuracy, and bias (so, work harder on accuracy, credibility, and quality).

Implications: journalists

I won’t belabor this point, but it’s easy and appealing to imagine having a go-everywhere, AI-based personal assistant accompany a working journalist. My prediction is that as digital personal assistants get more Samantha-like in the years ahead, they will give reporters more “superpowers” to do their jobs better and do new kinds of reporting not possible in 2013.

More later

I’m convinced that the news industry, and other media segments, aren’t looking far enough ahead at future technologies and societal developments that will affect them profoundly. As the pace of change accelerates, it’s a mistake to limit your view to only a year or two out. Something seemingly as “far out” as a Samantha-like digital personal assistant/companion could become reality sooner than most of us imagine. There are many other plausible future scenarios that I could cover.

Indeed, that’s the plan. Watch for more (periodic and not-on-a-set-schedule) articles like this considering other likely futures which will impact news and media.

(And a final thought: I already love my current OS — I’m a Macbook user — but it’s got a long way to advance and evolve before there’s any chance that I might fall in love with it! Sorry, Siri, I’m just not that into you.)

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!