South by SouthWest: No Future Without A
Three technology trends dominated this year’s South by SouthWest festival: artificial intelligence (AI)—which is increasingly intrusive everywhere and still holds the potential of being a complete game changer—, new conversational interfaces (bots and voice) and, last but not least, altered realities (virtual and augmented) that continue to progress.
Written by Eric Scherer (Méta-Media)
The growth of (newly ubiquitous) artificial intelligence creates the powerful impression that people, companies and institutions that do not get on board will soon be left behind.
“AI will pilot the next technological revolution. The pace of innovation is expected to be very fast,” stated a confident Diane Bryant, Intel’s number 2, in Texas. “With respect to AI, we have reached an inflection point,” confirmed Eric Horvitz, who heads Microsoft’s AI research lab.
Before a full house, billionaire investor Mark Cuban made this cautionary remark: “And I can already tell you that the first trillionaires on this planet will be those who will have mastered AI and used it in ways that we cannot even fathom at the present time.”
AI has already begun to facilitate, strengthen and augment human capacities. It has improved our safety nets and made it possible to attain a level of symbiotic intelligence between man and machine that forces the former to interact, for the first time in its millennial history, with exterior forms of intelligence.
It is nevertheless worth repeating that, although AI remains a low form of intelligence until further notice, it has begun to perceive, reason and make decisions.
AI agents have indeed become much more advanced and sophisticated because of several factors:
- The cloud and its low-cost storage capacity;
- Improved connectivity and data management capacities for the tens of billions of connected objects;
- Moore’s law and advancements in computer technology;
- The development of sensors and new software architectures;
- Developments in automatic learning.
In short and simple terms, given the progress made in recent years, AI can today differentiate between the picture of a cat and the picture of a dog, win in the game of Go, understand language and even drive an automobile.
“There is increasing confidence that AI will one day reach the level of human intelligence,” as predicted by Ray Kurzweil, famous futurologist and Google’s director of engineering. The consensus among experts is that such a point (referred to as The Singularity) will not be reached before yet another 30 to 40 years. “However, they make that affirmation based on the current pace of progress. But the pace is not linear, it’s currently accelerating!” sustains Kurzweil.
Fewer decisions for us to make
The idea is also to use AI to reduce the abundance of choices that surround and submerge us and which give rise to the staggering number of decisions we are required to make each and every minute.
In the media industry, AI already facilitates personalized recommendations, encoding and video compression optimization—sometimes even according to content—, real-time video dissemination (‘elastic’ Content Delivery Network) and, of course, programmatic advertising since a few years.
“Each time we have the opportunity to incorporate a program into an algorithm, we emerge as winners seeing as we gain audiences,” summarized Bonnie Pan, president of Endemol Beyond USA. And that’s true even though “the algorithm has become my own dictator,” quickly added Thomas Hughes, in charge of digital for Lionsgate’s independent production studio.
Bots and vocal interfaces
Thanks to the progress made in AI and the automatic processing of natural language, and following years of research and work on graphic interfaces, today’s new conversational interfaces are getting better and better with every new conversation. Voice is playing an increasing role with respect to access to content.
More and more people consider that AI is poised to become the next major instant 24/7 platform.
All of the web’s major players—including Amazon, Google, and Facebook—are now betting on this type of interface and seeking to use it namely to reach out to ever larger audiences.
We are therefore going to need to further change our own habits as we once did following the arrival of mobile devices!
Technology that is more casual, more hands-on and quicker
“In the past, people had to learn a programming language in order to be able to speak to machines. Today, computers have learned to master human language!” summarizes Andrew Yaroshevsky, director of operations for Chatfuel.
“We are in truly unchartered territory, where technology is developed to act and behave as we do,” adds Hector Ouilhet, Google’s head of design. Already, the Bing search engine increasingly carries out searches based on phrases or questions rather than keywords.
Consequently, we are going to talk to machines and they are going to talk among themselves. The same goes for brands. They will have a voice. Technology is finally adapting to us. It is more accessible and less complex because the conversation unfolds naturally. The day will come when you’ll tell the restaurant table to pay the bill for you!
Downloading apps is becoming an increasingly rare practice. It takes up to 45 seconds, which is way too long! “It’s like getting married! Whereas talking with a bot is tantamount to dating!” says Facebook. “Next year, 30% of our interactions will be voice-based,” assures the Huge innovation firm.
Better yet: “Skills will pass from object to object. You will be able to ask for information from your lamp and have your dishwasher call your mother or have your television set order toilet paper. We’ll no longer be able to say what a given device can or cannot do,” explains Ouilhet.
After the ‘touch first’ generation follows the ‘voice first’ generation. In the United States, children have quickly learned to give instructions to their Amazon terminals: “Alexa, do this!” And, as always, the musical functions that are very present on these terminals should also attract youth.
To save time (after all, each second counts for a millennial!), Messenger equips its bots with clickable buttons that are less time-consuming and more structured than open-ended conversations that sometimes lead to nowhere. It is therefore crucial to properly determine the user’s expectations from the onset of the experience. After video, payment solutions have already begun to be installed in brand chatbots.
But the general public still has no idea of what a bot is. Should it maybe be renamed?
Finally, Siri (Apple), Assistant (Google), Cortana (Microsoft) will also be at the front end of voice-controlled virtual reality devices.
VR/AR: “virtual reality is the world in which we want to live”
When it comes to altered realities, we cannot but recognize that we are still in a demonstration phase. We have only but begun to learn the grammar and vocabulary of a very new media that engages our entire being.
“Our digital world used to be a 2D world. In the future, our websites will no longer be flat! And we might be joined there by our friends. Tomorrow’s jury could find itself straight in the middle of the crime scene,” described journalist Nonny de la Peña, a VR pioneer.
Moreover, the killer app will not necessarily emanate from the world of entertainment. It could come from sports. All major golf courses in the US are now scanned in 3D and equipped with sensors to enable players to ‘play’ or practice from home.
Already widely used for medical and therapeutic purposes, VR could also maybe be used in education or retail sales. And why not after the launch of the next-generation iPhone, which some predict will be equipped with VR capabilities.
Children are ‘VR natives’
In virtual reality (VR), users can type a text using their eyes and place the citizen at the heart of the information. With augmented reality (AR), titles will float in the air around you. You will walk in the street along your Twitter feed and use voice commands to retweet!
“It will be possible to capture any object around us and include it in the story,” claims Robert Scobble, another pioneer of new digital realities. “In four years from now, volumetric cameras will have football matches play out straight on your coffee table!”
VR is a crucial space for youth who are getting accustomed to navigating through 3D environments, namely via video games. “Children are very quickly going to become VR natives.” In little time, they will consider it totally normal to play with something suspended in midair.
Toward mixed reality
Everyone has the feeling that the industry’s target is moving toward mixed reality (an evolution of augmented reality) visible through lightweight glasses or implants. However, the experience will need to become natural and intuitive (no instructions or menus)!
“It takes 7 years to learn how to read and write. With today’s interfaces, it has become natural to touch a screen to launch commands and pinch it to zoom the displayed content. In the future, we will need to learn the vocabulary of VR and AR. The +point and click+ are already realities,” explains Timoni West, lab manager for Unity.
“Stop worrying about current limitations and convince yourself of the following fact: things will begin to unfold very fast once the technology has progressed.” That is the advice given by VR pioneers (already 40 years old). “Things will be lighter and quicker and image quality will improve.”
User engagement will prove to be crucial, and both directors and producers are beginning to work on new tools to enable spherical storyboards.
The quality of mobile VR should quickly reach the levels attained by desktop computing. Today, the main obstacle to its growth has nothing to do with hardware or software, but everything to do with insufficient content.
In conclusion, we have today only reached the equivalent of the first days of aviation with respect to these three trends, which have yet to go mainstream. A few metres above the ground, but the acceleration can sometimes be lightening quick.
This article was originally published on Méta-Média and is presented here as part of the editorial partnership between CMF Trends and Méta-Média. ©  [Méta-Média]. All rights reserved.