A Silicon Assistant Goes Proactive

Salvador Rodriguez writes today in the LA Times about the release of Google Now for iPhone and iPad products, following on the heels of its rollout last year for Android products. The central idea in Google Now hasn’t changed: the software considers your context, from schedule information to GPS coordinates and recent actions, and uses that context to decide on what information to provide to you, proactively. That information can be pure data, such as a weather forecast, or it can be more active, such as telling you that it’s time to end the meeting, walk out the door, and catch the bus that will arrive in eight minutes, otherwise you will be late for the party downtown.  Of course it offers to call your next appointment up for you and modify your schedule too.

Google Now is an example of technology at the tip of an iceberg that I try to portray in Attention Dilution Disorder. As software and robot systems track the complex constraints of our lives- locations, schedules, friendships, promises, reservations- and learn how to reason about them, the power relationship between the individual and their software ‘agents’ begins to invert.  Information is the currency of today’s app’s, but this will evolve into the currency of imperatives: our agents tell us when to get up, when to walk out, which way to turn, when we can slow down and order a dessert and when there is no time for that. I have seen wealthy individuals who are managed by their executive assistants- there is a deep irony in the super-powerful who are nearly remote-controlled by their assistants.  As our software becomes ever more proactive, those of us who are not that wealthy by a mile can experience the irony of these inverted relationships too- the good along with the bad.


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