A short while ago I got my heart broken by a robot. Lost on a popular website I was offered direct chat assistance. The brief dialogue with a young woman named Lisa was highly entertaining. She expertly answered all my questions, we shared a few jokes and just as I was about to ask her out, it became obvious that as much as I had enjoyed our brief time together, we weren’t meant to be – Lisa was but a line of code in cyberspace.
If you haven’t been paying attention to the news lately, artificial intelligence is on the rise. Robots manage 70% of the US stock trading volume, and if there ever was a company capable of bringing the concept to the masses, it is certainly Apple, who, coincidently, made it the key marketing point of the iPhone.
Considering the pace of technological progress, it is safe to assume that in another decade virtual assistants are going to become highly sophisticated. Accessible through a range of gadgets, anytime anywhere, and hooked up to social media, the Siri of tomorrow will know everything there is to know about me – my preferences in food, fashion and people, my finances, hobbies and holiday plans. Eventually, she will be able to make decisions on my behalf, knowing which smartphone I would like, how much I could afford to spend on it and whether I would prefer to wait a week and get it cheaper or pay the premium and have it delivered to the office as soon as it comes out.
Vendor-side, my helper will be served by equally advanced robots that will not only know what I like, but also have a pretty good idea of what I can afford. With both parties providing services with digital precision around the clock, the concepts of store opening hours and busy hotlines will become a thing of the past. When I am able to order a pair of trainers while watching a movie simply by tapping my phone and saying: “get me one of those”, the return on investment in product placement will become more transparent. Linked to smart TV sets, Siri will understand what I mean and know what size to order.
Some of the challenges of that digital paradise are fairly predictable as well. Firstly, and most obviously: security. With my banking details in her pocket, my virtual PA is going to need serious protection. Secondly, life will become less emotional. Although I will never forget another anniversary, my girlfriend will know that I didn’t spend sleepless nights deciding what to get her and days of agony trying to acquire it – I simply asked Siri to check her social media pages and pick something suitable. If you follow the concept through, it will lead to a rather twisted place – with digital assistant picking up perfect gifts and compiling personal notes, who is my girlfriend really romantically involved with?
In the world where both retailers and customers are represented by machines, who will marketing appeal to? And more importantly, who is going to be writing ads – marketeers like me, a bunch of IT engineers or robots themselves? Considering they will be the ones doing most of the shopping and the ever-growing complexity of the code, who is going to understand the new generation of consumers better?
Talking of complexities, it’s quite possible that the ever more sophisticated robots are becoming too complicated to control. The crash of 2.45 is just the most prominent example of technology going awry. In case you missed the story, on May 6 2010, with no human interference, a trader robot caused the Dow Jones to drop 700 points in just a few minutes, costing the market an estimated $1 trillion. The event was not the first (and by no means the last) of its kind and the market bounced back but up until today no-one can explain what gets into those digital minds to make them go Vegas with our savings.
In the world of today, the robotic marketplace is already very real and rapidly growing, moving from stock trading to grocery shopping. Driven by the technology race, robots are getting faster and omnipresent; their code – increasingly more convoluted. Whether or not machines will ever understand us, considering they are being groomed to take over most of the world’s infrastructure, from economy to security, we need to understand them. Otherwise, when the lights go out we will not even be able to go back to candles – based on my shopping history Siri will not have bought them.