Friday, May 20, 2011

From Agents To Apps

"According to IDC, smartphone manufacturers shipped 100.9 million devices in the fourth quarter of 2010, while PC manufacturers shipped 92.1 million units worldwide. Or, more simply put, smartphones just outsold PCs for the first time ever." (source: New York Times, 8 February 2011)

And also:

"Amazon ... is claiming that Kindle e-books are outselling hardcover and paperback print books on its Website." (source:, 19 May 2011)

So, call me Captain Obvious, but this mobile computing stuff really seems to have caught on. And hey, I'm a fan. For all of its deficiencies (dropped calls, poor reception, yaddayadda) the cellphone has made the world a safer, more efficient place. 15 years ago, if your car crapped out on you at 3am in some strange place, you had a "situation". Nowadays help is literally a phone call away. Which is why I get irate when my wife and kids go out and don't take their cellphones with them -- I mean, why are we paying for these things anyway?!

One of my favorite writers put it thus:

Stories set in the Culture in which Things Went Wrong tended to start with humans losing or forgetting or deliberately leaving behind their terminal. It was a conventional opening, the equivalent of straying off the path in the wild woods in one age, or a car breaking down at night on a lonely road in another. A terminal ... was your link with everybody and everything else in the Culture. With a terminal, you were never more than a question or a shout away from almost anything you wanted to know, or almost any help you could possibly need.

There were (true) stories of people falling off cliffs and the terminal relaying their scream in time for a Hub unit to switch to that terminal's camera, realize what was happening and displace a drone to catch the faller in midair; there were other stories about terminals recording the severing of their owner's head from their body in an accident, and summoning a medical drone in time to save the brain, leaving the de-bodied person with no more a problem than finding ways to pass the months it took to grow a new body.

A terminal was safety.
--- The Player Of Games by Iain M Banks

But I digress. The real reason I'm writing this is to comment on how personal computing today varies from how people thought it would be twenty-odd years ago.

Once upon a time, everyone thought The Future was going to be "agent technology" -- that is, we'd all have one or more personal 'software entities' (ie 'agents') that would go out and do things for us. You'd say "I need to meet with Steve Jobs -- set up a meeting, book a flight and a hotel room and a car, and oh yeah Billy's birthday is next week so buy him that home chemistry set he's been wanting". And your Agent would go do all that stuff for you.

You can see how this hasn't exactly worked out. For one thing, the idea of buying a home chemistry set scares the bejeezus out of people for fear of getting flagged by Homeland Security or the DEA. But more to the point -- think about how someone today would go about executing on the tasks given above:

First off you'd pull out your smartphone and look up Steve Job's phone number in your smartphone's Contacts list. Then you'd give him a call and set up the meeting, and then put the meeting into your smartphone's Calendar, then you'd set up the flight, hotel, and car, either by using your smartphone's web browser or, more likely, "there's an app for that". That settled, you'd use the Amazon app to browse for chemistry sets, select one, buy it and arrange to have it shipped. And you can do all this while you're sitting in the waiting room at the doctor's office.

The point I'm trying to make is that apps have supplanted agents as the future's way of getting things done. Or, to look at it another way, instead of telling an agent what we want, we interact with a smartphone plus apps to get things done. Which, if you think about it, is probably a superior way to do most things: given the current state of the art in artificial intelligence, it's unlikely that anyone would trust a piece of software to set up a business trip for them. Smartphone apps hit the "sweet spot": they allow people to perform tasks both trivial and difficult, but they keep the human in the loop just enough to ensure desired results. AI deficiencies aside, this probably also makes people feel more secure, knowing that they've supervised the job enough that they're confident they'll achieve the results they want and expect. It's a "trust thing": you had no idea that some chemistry sets are priced at over $200, and so you're pleased that you were involved in the purchase and picked the one that cost $35.

For sure, agent technology might someday arrive. But I think there's going to be a significant "human factor" that will need to be surmounted. I guess if I were a rich fart or a corporate executive who was comfortable with handing out short, imprecise orders to my staff or my secretary, an agent would be a natural, easy thing to work with. When and if we ever get usable agents, I suspect that they will be highly personalized to 'fit' the person they work with -- sort've like how a travel agency keeps track of whether a client prefers smoking or non-smoking, window / middle / aisle seating, etc -- but in a lot more detail. And these personal databases, full of random and extremely personal trivia about an individual, will need to be very, very secure. I mean, imagine that business trip above except the command ends with "and book me some entertainment while I'm out there" and the agent helpfully sets up an appointment with a call-girl, knowing that you prefer short blondes with a C-cup. Now imagine that a newspaper reporter or your wife gets hold of that database.

So what does the future hold for smartphone / app technology? My guess for the relative near future is that smartphone devices will be given more latitude to wake up and notify us of events of interest. An example I like to use is: you're at your hotel, resting up for the big meeting with Steve Jobs the next morning, when you're jarred awake by alarms -- the hotel is on fire! You're on the 10th floor, and you need to get out, fast. So you grab your smart phone and turn it on and bring up your Hotel Fire Escape App, which uses GPS and other techniques to guide you to the exit.

Well, okay, not quite -- most people are going to at most grab their pants and head out the door. But imagine that instead your smartphone wakes up with the alarm, sounding it's own alarm to make it easier for you to locate it, and runs the Escape App automatically. You grab the phone and it's got big green flashing arrow directing you out the door, down the hall, and to the stairs. This is example is admittedly contrived, but I think we'll be seeing more and more of this kind of thing in the next few years: our smartphones will become more "context-aware" and will initiate user interaction when appropriate.

(You may think the hotel fire rescue app is silly, but I'm told that navigating dark, smoke-filled rooms and hallways is not easy. A number of hotels are moving emergency exit signs down to near floor level, where they can be more easily seen if (God forbid) the smoke is so thick you find yourself crawling on your hands and knees to keep out of the smoke. If a smartphone app can help people survive that kind of dangerous situation, more power to it!).

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