Context and Connectivity: The Future Of Computing

How will the world change now that everyone has a sensor filled, powerful computer in their pocket? Personally, I hope it will become one of connectivity and context. When you hear connectivity you may be thinking I am talking about the 'Internet of Things.' While the it is definitely part of my vision, the connecting of applications is just as important in my view. Ideally I would like to see all of my devices and applications be able to communicate with each other and share relevant data, run by a personal Artificial Intelligence (AI) that can contextually understand me. The good news is that we are moving towards this future, the bad news is I fear that it will be a pale comparison to what it could be. In the next couple years we will see a advancements with both connectivity and contextual understanding:

  • The proliferation of everyday objects and computers connected together in what's called the 'Internet of Things.'
  • Apple, Microsoft, and Google will continue to work on their respective virtual assistants, though a true personal AI is years off.

The one area that I see the most near future potential is the connecting of apps, unfortunately it's also the one I fear has the least chance of succeeding. While we are starting to see some minor connectivity, like smart calendars, I think traditional practices will keep businesses wary about freely sharing data with other companies. (Even if those other companies aren't selling a competing product.) Though there is a hope will smaller developers and companies, just look at how many apps support Markdown text editing. The hurdles of connecting applications to one another is not just a technological one but a human one. As I am sure you have heard something like this from a dirty hippy trying to sell you weed: "If we all just worked together, the world would be like a better place, man." Enough introduction, here is the technological future I would like to see.

Connectivity

We are already starting to see everyday objects connected to the internet and our computers. Lightbulbs, fridges, basketballs, and many more things are getting getting connected to the internet. They all seem to be connected to a companion app on the users phone. The problem with this is that if the products from different companies can't connect at a software level we will never see the full cohesive potential of the Internet of Things. The same is true of traditional applications, if developers don't work together to share data between their apps our computers will never be as useful as they could be.

Connecting Hardware

The Internet of Things is coming, but how revolutionary will it be? I believe proprietary services will fail, for the most part because customers won't just buy products from one company. Therefore it will be the companies that work together to make a cohesive smart life. The current landscape doesn't look so bright though. If I buy a smart lightbulb today, I can turn it on/off, schedule when it will be on, or even change the colour of the bulb, all from an app on my phone. (Though you can do some interesting stuff with IFTTT) While that is cool, it is nothing compared to what it could be. What if the lightbulb was connected to my bed, fitness app, and kettle. My bed would monitor my sleep cycle and send the optimal time to wake me up to my alarm, which would send the the wake-up time to my lights, so they turned on gradually for a gentle wakeup. While that was happening my kettle would be boiling and ready when I got to my kitchen. My sleep data would be sent to my phone and my weight would be recorded. After analyzing my exercise and nutrition data with my schedule it would suggest a breakfast that would be optimal for me, be it weight loss, higher carbs for more energy, higher protein on work out days, etc. It would check with my fridge and smart shelves if I had the required foods and would give me suggestions based on what I currently had. That is a much more powerful use of technology. While a person could probably rig this system up today it would be very complicated to link them all together, the linking of the software is the glue that holds all this together. I sincerely hope companies can move past proprietary systems and work together to connect everything.

Connecting Applications

Connecting applications to share data with one another could be an even more powerful idea than the Internet of Things. Apps today are pretty insular, meaning the data created in one app isn't used by other applications. I want my applications to take the relevant data from each other to put it together into something more useful than the individual apps alone. I want messages, calendar, social networks, to-do list, location data, and web data used together to act as a personal scheduling assistant. For example, a friend sends you a Snapchat saying "Let's go to O'Flannigans tonight!" You send a reply saying "Sure, and dude I don't need to see your junk every time you Snapchat me". Your phone schedules the event in your calendar but it also gets directions, searches the web for Taxi services, and makes sure O'Flannigans is open. It sees that there was a water main break and the whole bar was flooded. It sends you and your friends this info and suggests other nearby bars that are similar. That of course is just the start of connectivity, as more and more apps can interface with each other, our computers will become more and more powerful tools.

Contextual Understanding

Hal 9000

Hal 9000

Computers contextually understanding your normal speech is the other big leap I am looking forward to. Understanding what you say is necessary but what I mean is actually understanding the meaning behind your words. While this is years away, it will be a huge societal change when it comes. Imagine being able to ask a question to your computer and have it: know what your talking about, and get the right answer. Not a list of search results but the actual right answer, checked against multiple sources from the web for accuracy. While the technology is definitely a bit farther off, companies are already working toward it. If you want a good example of the full potential of this, look at 'J.A.R.V.I.S' in the Iron Man movies. Tony Stark's virtual assistant 'J.A.R.V.I.S' understands him and is able to act on that understanding. While we won't have anything near that good anytime soon Siri, Google Now, and now Cortana will continue to grow more useful every year. Eventually everyone will have a virtual assistant on their devices that they can speak to in a normal, conversational way. An AI assistant that not only understands them but is a powerful tool for getting stuff done. For example, I would like to be able to get home from hanging out with friends, press my home button and say "Siri, look at the pictures I took tonight, erase the bad ones, touch up the good ones, tag everyone, and send them to everyone who was there. Oh and get the photos from them as well." I don't have to do anything but ask and it's done. While asking your device to do something for you would be handy, we shouldn't rule out predictive computing. Google Now is already trying to give you the information you need without searching. It is in its infancy but it is a very promising computing avenue. This effortless computing will improve lives by taking away menial tasks. Especially as their ability to understand our natural way of speaking improves and our trust with AI grows as we give them more and more power. I want a virtual partner to do tasks for me and make my life easier.

Diving Deeper With Examples Of Connectivity and Contextual Understanding

Application Connectivity

Your cousin texts you that he will be in town this weekend. Your calendar pops up a notification. "Want me to move your weekend appointments to next week?" You say "sure" and your calendar moves everything to the following weekend. However you had a yoga session session scheduled, so your calendar looks at your schedule to finds times that you could have re-schedules yoga for, it contacts your instructor to reschedule. It then confirms the new appointment time with you.

Hardware Connectivity

The fridge is great example of how internet connectivity in everyday objects could improve your life. There are already smart fridges but they seem to be ill thought out and too manual of a process to get any benefit. Here is how I see a smart fridge working.

  • When you buy groceries, the data from what you bought gets sent to your fridge. So it knows the quantity and what you bought. (Grocers, credit card companies and fridge manufacturers would have to work together so an itemized list could be sent from one to the other.) You could also manually enter in the things that you shoplifted or bought with cash.
  • The fridge itself would have special containers that had a button that you could press as you loaded them to detail it's contents. Those containers would measure the weight of whatever was inside of it to ascertain current quantities.
  • It would have an interface on the door that you could either type or ask what can I eat? It shows what leftovers you have but you could also get recipes that would use the groceries you have.
  • Each person in the house would have a profile so if they were allergic to something, or a vegetarian, they would get proper suggestions.
  • It would alert you when things were going bad and warn you.
  • Your shopping list is linked to your fridge so you can see if you need a certain item. You could also choose a recipe and have your fridge automatically put the items you don't have on your shopping list.

Contextual Understanding

You're writing a paper for school and your AI chimes in "Your main argument seems to be a flawed one. I searched the web and almost every reputable source disagrees with you. Want me to show you a summary of what they say?"

Final Words

Will this become a reality? In some form or another, yes. It will be a tough road ahead both technologially and philosophically. Companies will have to work together to make their devices and apps interact with each other. AI will have to advance and we will heatedly debate whether we should be creating intelligent computers. Here is hoping we can work together and build a future filled with technological marvels.

Extra Examples

Application Connectivity

We are already starting to see smart calendars show events, reminders, social networking events, location data, and of course regular appointments grouped into one interface. Take that idea and apply it to all sorts of applications, the more connected the smarter they will all become. There is such a huge potential in connecting apps, even smart calendars are a pale comparison to what they could be. What if your calendar was linked with everything? Imagine this:

  • You have a set schedule and you have half an hour scheduled for your to-do list. On your to-do list is 'Book Haircut'. The calendar looks at where you have gotten your hair cut in the past by getting info from your mapping app and then looks up the hours online. It then notifies you "Your regular hair salon is closed during your scheduled to-do period. Would you like me to remind you to call earlier? Or should I just schedule it for you?" You say "Yeah sure, just schedule it for me." The next day your phone schedules the haircut and gives you a notification for when it is scheduled. (Of course the hair salon would need to have a system in place to take online bookings.)

  • You're texting a friend and he asks you to go out for supper tomorrow, you respond 'Sure, sounds great.' and up pops a notification that says "You already have 'Appointment X' scheduled for tomorrow night. Want me to reschedule Appointment X?" You can't miss that appointment so you ask your devices voice control "When do I have time to hang our with my friend?". It tells you tomorrow would be fine, so you ask your friend if he could do supper tomorrow instead.

  • You have a tight schedule and something important comes up. Your calendar looks at your schedule and looks at what is important and what can be moved to later in the day. So dropping off your kids for school stays but it moves 'Research Topic A' to later in the day. It knows that Topic A is for a project that isn't due until the end of the month because it looked at your to-do list. Your schedule becomes automatically fluid if you need it to be.

The calendar is the obvious place to start because it has so many benefits but this connectivity could make almost any application better:

  • Link your RSS reader, Twitter, and internet browser history to get a comprehensive view on the information you get from the internet. Take that information and link it to an personal wiki that automatically sorts, tags, and stores everything you read and watch to turn your computer into an artificial brain. You could then link that to voice controls and ask things like "How do I change the default list in Reminders?" It goes to your wiki and looks up the information it needs from something you read a couple years ago, and gives you the answer not just a web search.
  • Link your yoga app, your fitness tracker, your meditation app, and your food diary and you have a compelling health app. (It sounds like Apples 'Healthbook' will be like this in iOS8)
  • Save all your communications with people in one place, no matter what app you used.
  • Connect apps that deal with text based information together so when you start typing something on 'Topic A' a list of various things you have written/saved are presented to you.

Applications that are this connected is the world I want to live in.

The Internet Of Things Examples

Sensors, sensors everywhere.

Personally the item I want to see get connected is the bed. You can already buy fitness trackers or phone apps that monitor your sleep and wake you up at the best point in your sleep cycle. However that requires you to wear a thing around your wrist all night, or sleep with your phone in your bed. By putting a mat filled with sensors under your mattress you bed could monitor how well you sleep and what the best time to wake you up would be. Why stop there though?

  • It could tell when you are in bed and because it's connected to your alarm, calendar and GPS data it would know that you had school at 9:AM, You had accidentally se your alarm for 10AM, it realizes your mistake and wake you up in time.
  • What if class was cancelled? Well your calendar already knows that from being connected to your email account. What if there was a snow day and you didn't know? Your bed is connected to the internet and sees that there will be 50 centimetres of snow dropping during the night, it monitors the schools site and Twitter and if school is cancelled, it lets you sleep in.
  • Or there is a freak tornado heading for your house. It monitors the weather and wakes you up to warn you.
  • You get an emergency call or text and your bed makes sure that you get up to answer it. It would read and understand texts to differentiate between emergency and regular ones. (It sounds odd to use texting in an emergency but with younger peoples aversion to calling this will probably become a thing.)
  • It monitors if you have an "unfamiliar bed mate" and locks the door so you aren't disturbed. In the morning if they wake up before you do it displays a map of the house, what's available for breakfast, etc on their phone so they don't feel uncomfortable wandering around a house they are unfamiliar with.
  • It could weigh you and notice if you are gaining weight, look at your activity levels and decide the probability of whether it's muscle or fat and let you know you're getting fat. It would also work with your nutrition app to give you healthier suggestions.

Gas Pumps

You get gas and the pump is linked to your car to show how much gas is pumped. You tell the attendant to fill it up and sit in your car browsing Reddit. When it's finished pumping your car says "A total of xL was pumped at a cost of $55.48 would you like me to pay for it?" You say "Sure" and your car communicates with the computer inside to charge your account. (Though hopefully by the time this is possible we will be using electric vehicles.)

Contextual Computing

Imagine being able to have a conversation with the computer like "I am having trouble with this post, the wording just doesn't seem right." and having the computer your working on say "Well the first paragraph works pretty well but you go on a tangent with the second one. Your wording could also be changed like this to better emphasize your point." Before your eyes it shows you the part he is talking about and highlights the problem sentence and shows you how it could be re-worded. "That works well, can you find me some sources that back up the main argument." Your AI searches your personal wiki along with the web and comes up with the strongest posts with the most credibility and shows you a list. "I'll review them later just link them to the relevant text." And your computer automatically links them.

I want to sit down at my computer and say to my personal AI (Named Gargamel for some weird reason, I've never even seen the Smurfs. Damn you Robot Chicken!):

Me - 'Gargamel set up my writing enviroment.'

It - 'There you go.'

My music starts playing and all my apps, files, and the documents I am working on, open. I start working and decide I want to listen to another playlist from Rdio so I say:

Me - 'Gargamel switch the music to Instrumental.' It - 'The Rdio playlist?' Me - ' Yeah'

I continue working and start writing about an app.

Me - 'Gargamel can you link the app to the iTunes store and get the price for me.'

It - 'Ok linking it up now. I looked up some reviews for the app, your right it is a good one.'

Me - 'Shut up baby, I know it'

The links are automatically added to my document.

Me - 'Oh can you grab me all the stuff I have written about Siri and paste it on the bottom. You can ignore duplicate ideas.'

It - 'Ok, there is everything I could find that you wrote. There were some older documents that were in a folder you haven't been to in a year, would you like me to move them with the rest of your notes?'

Me - 'Yeah sure but tag them as old so I know. Actually while your at it look for any tech related writing and put it in a new folder called unsorted with the rest of my tech writing.'

Me - 'I can't think of the word for the crossing of a river'

It - 'Do you mean fjord?'

Me - 'That's the one, thanks.'

I can easily find words that are on the tip of my tongue.

Of Course All Work And No Play Makes Jack A Dull Boy

You could sit down at your TV and ask:

You - "What episode of 'TV-Show' am I on?" Your computer is already keeping track of which episodes you watch on your phone, tablet, desktop, or TV and tells you."

AI - "Season 3 Episode 5. Would you like me to play the next episode?"

You - "Yes"

Which wakes your TV from sleep, and the episode is cued up from the best possible source, be it your own personal files, Netflix, Hulu, iTunes, or a less reputable site.

This dream is a ways off but it will be an exciting one when it finally arrives.


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