Viewpoint: AI will change our relationship with tech

By Genevieve Bell
Interaction and experience research director, Intel Labs

image captionThe coming year may bring cameras that know how to make people look as good as possible

In 1984, Canadian movie director James Cameron imagined a world in which computers achieved self-awareness and set about systematically destroying humankind.

Skynet, the Terminator series computer network, was to go live in 2011 and bring the world to an end.

Of course, we have just survived 2011 without such a cataclysmic event. And the closest we got to computers achieving self-awareness was Apple's Siri.

It doesn't promise self-awareness per se, but does promise to listen and to learn - and hopefully not systematically destroy us.

It seems likely that in 2012 a computer will pass the Turing Test - which might get us closer to a digital machine with true artificial intelligence (AI). The irony is that most of us will not care.

AI agnostic

I am struck by the ways in which the debate around human-computer engagements has moved on from the Turing Test and the notion of a computer that can seem human by simulating human reasoning and interpretation.

These days, we want more. We want machines that will take care of us, not just reason with us.

We want machines that will look out for us and our interests, not ones that can parse the difference between other computers and computer scientists.

And there are signs of such machines on the horizon, which is good.

Because right now the digital devices in our lives are quite insecure - they require constant reassurances: "yes, I do want you to delete that file"; "yes, please connect to that wi-fi hotspot" (again); "yes, download that driver."

Attention seeking

image captionA machine passes Alan Turing's test if you cannot tell from its responses if it is human or computer

They are also remarkably needy - our devices want power, connectivity, passwords, minutes, content and the like.

I sometimes think if our devices were people, we would describe them as high maintenance and would wonder quietly to ourselves if it was time to break up with them.

This problem could get quite acute if we continue to acquire more devices at the current pace - and we will. If there is a threshold for how many digital devices and services we want in our lives, we don't seem to have reached it yet.

However, I think in 2012 we will start to see signs of change in our relationships with devices.

Here I do not just mean more forms of new interfaces and new interactions. This is less about gesture and voice recognition and more about machines that are contextually and situationally aware.

And there is lots of serious technology in the works to make that happen - networking technology that knows when to switch networks to make sure your voice-over-IP call does not drop; cameras that know how to make you look your best, smart devices that actually learn about your likes and dislikes and make better choices to delight and surprise you.


I think this means we can look forward to our interactions with digital devices maturing into something more like a relationship, and a little less like a lot of hard work.

Of course, some of that is a little way off. In the meantime, we have other things to look forward to.

The last couple of years have seen a lot of devices to help us download and consume media content. Those have been great and have clearly found a place in many of our homes and backpacks.

And there is surely more to come, as we all still like a good story. But I think 2012 might be a year in which our desire to make things, and not just consume things, really blossoms.

image caption2012 may be the year in which more users shift from consumption to creativity

Whether through the mainstreaming of bespoke and DIY culture, with things like the Maker Faire in the United States and elsewhere, or the emergence of that mad and wonderful reimagining of the Victorian era "steampunk", or the growing community on or just the continued persistence of user-generated content, my sense is that having a voice has never been more important.

We want to be creators, not consumers.

Whether it is the growing number of choices we have for laptops which are lighter and let us multi-task, offering the opportunity for new experiences and new meaning, or the emergence of even smaller, faster digital cameras with smarter ways of helping us take the photo we really want and capture the moment that matters, the technologies for making, for creating, for sharing and curating look very promising in 2012.

Genevieve Bell is an anthropologist and director of interaction and experience research at Intel Labs

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