Forget Siri: The virtual assistants of the future will transform the way we work and live

 Forget Siri, before long you’ll be aided by a virtual assistant that knows and understands you better than anyone. We finds out how this will change everything.

Surging technological advancements have had a remarkable impact on the way we live and work. With a smartphone in our pocket, we can know just about anything simply by asking. But this is nothing on what the virtual assistants of the future will give us.

Tailored to our every need and designed to compile everything from fitness and mental data to our schedules and interests, virtual assistants will provide assistance throughout our lifetime with everything from daily tasks to long-term goal achievement. They will monitor, support and coach us, changing with us as we grow, and likely know us better than anyone in the world.

The concept has been formed as a result of research by Dr Chris Brauer, Goldsmiths Institute of Management Studies director of innovation and founder of the Centre for Creative and Social Technologies, in partnership with trend research agency Mindshare.

Virtual assistants will provide assistance throughout our lifetime with everything from daily tasks to long-term goal achievement

“It really emerged from all the work we had being doing around wearable technologies,” says Brauer, explaining how a need for real-time feedback had been commonly expressed by potential users. “It sort of turned us back around to virtual assistants, something we’d always been interested in and we’d been looking at previously but not in any detail.”

But instead of simply looking at the technological capabilities, Brauer and his team focused on speaking to potential users to determine what the most likely elements of such a virtual assistant, or VA for short, would be and how people would respond to them.

“We embarked upon our project virtual assistant in partnership with Mindshare to investigate what these things might look like in the future and what people would really want from such a service,” he says.


Natural language parsing

Siri, Google Now and other similar programs are profoundly simplistic when compared to what your typical virtual assistant will be like. It will, however, have listening capabilities, although at a far more advanced level.

“From our own research we’re looking at more of a hearable-type technology indicated as a preference for people, perhaps something embedded within the ear that is then very good at gathering physiological data but can also interact with voice recognition systems,” explains Brauer.

This technology will be capable of parsing natural language – something that very high-end technologies can already achieve.

“We see the stuff with IBM and the True North chip and the semantic chips that are developed with brain-like architectures to process, and we think that something like that will be at the core of the actual processing capabilities, so that the virtual assistant is performed and architected more like the human mind, say for example, than the traditional processor,” he says.

However, this level of sophistication is likely to come in over time, with the earliest technologies that can truly be called virtual assistants emerging very soon.

The first virtual assistant will be mainstream in about five years’ time

“The first virtual assistant will be mainstream in about five years’ time,” says Brauer.

“Although that’s not going to be the whole robust hard AI solution inside of a device like that, they will have very robust capabilities integrating across all the services that we typically get right now through very specific applications, but integrated together, and then the data from our bodies and increasingly our minds also being ported in there to get more intrapersonal awareness.”


Adopting virtual assistants

When we first get this technology, Brauer believes there will be an initial period where people are getting to grips with what it can do for them.

“Essentially in that first stage [users need] to be able to experiment with it and see what aspects of a virtual assistant are useful in their lives,” he explains. “That process of discovery and experimentation will be critical in the beginning.”

Once users are used to the technology, the next stage will be compiling your own VA from an array of different modules and components developed by different companies.

“What features and functionality does it have? What are the privacy and payment models in which the VA is functioning in relation to you?” asks Brauer.

From there it is a case of living with the VA as a constant companion and adjusting it in response to your own evolving needs.

While the features, functionality even the identity of the VA will change through a lifetime, the concept of a VA will be with you all the time as a fluid companion in life

“While the features, functionality even the identity of the VA will change through a lifetime, the concept of a VA will be with you all the time as a fluid companion in life,” adds Brauer.

Brauer believes that for the majority of us, building the VA from different components will b a simple process aided by a user-friendly system.

“There will be a fairly simple process you can go through in order to find that. It’s the direction we’re seeing a lot of these industries go – choosing your service provider will be not unlike the way we deal with our mobile phone providers , where we’re looking at different plans, different opportunities to leverage different aspects of virtual assistant capability,” he explains.

“I think the intelligence of the virtual assistant will reside in the cloud and then there will be a layer of service providers that will develop specific services harnessing the power of that intelligence and making it easy for users to plug into.”

However, technologically savvy users will not have to take this approach if they do not want to.

“There will be users who will just access the core intelligence and then configure it for their own needs,” adds Brauer.


Life management by AI

Brauer believes that VAs will change our lives in many different ways, depending on how we use them.

“We saw daily management skills, things like capturing your ideas and thoughts in real-time, making suggestions based on information that they know about your behaviours and your patterns and so on, issuing reminders and persuasive indicators as configured by the user to help guide you through situations,” he explains, giving the example of a VA prompting you to go to bed if it’s getting late and you have an early meeting.

“In daily management we think it will be critical in relation to health,” he adds.

“Monitoring your health condition, monitoring physiological and data coming from the body, helping you to lead a healthier lifestyle by monitoring the ingredients and the components of the various foods that you’re either thinking of eating or ingesting and working that way to support you in your own targets around the lifestyle that you’re wanting to lead.”

However, the technology will have a significant emotional component, with the capability to “emotionally and behaviourally supporting you”, something that robotics technology is making key strides in at present.

With virtual assistants, the data collection will help us to learn things about ourselves that we never knew, much in the way that big data is revealing never-before-realised facts about the world’s cities.

“I think making visible that which isn’t immediately apparent both about ourselves and about our lives will have a big impact on how we perceive the balance between work and play and living,” says Brauer.


Replacing human assistants

Inevitably perhaps, VAs will oust many real personal assistants, not just because they can do their job, but because they can do their job better than a typical human.

“Virtual assistants will link with each other to make logistical coordinations in the same way a PA would,” he explains, but adds that VAs will provide a second component most PAs do not.

“The virtual assistant will have a much more personal aspect, in terms of intimate knowledge of the individual, so it could also make recommendations,” he explains.

Virtual assistants will link with each other to make logistical coordinations in the same way a PA would

“A lot of PAs and assistants are strictly reactive or responsive, there are some that are able to sort of provide some insight to the people they’re supporting about ways in which they can make changes and so on to do higher performance, but they’re not so much coaches as they are just assistants.

“We see virtual assistants being able to play that coaching role as well, which would add significant additional functionality to the traditional PA role.”

Changing the web

Because of their connected nature and continued presence, Brauer believes that VAs will become our primary gateway to the internet.

This in itself is significant because it has the potential to significantly change the way the internet is designed as it becomes shaped to best supply VAs with the information they require.

“I think it’s going to be somewhat of a revolution not unlike the Google interface and search and the simplicity of it, and the way in which the page rank algorithm completely reconfigured the way we access knowledge,” Brauer explains.

I see this virtual assistant playing a very similar role in developing an entire new generation of ways in which we access knowledge and information.

“I see this virtual assistant playing a very similar role in developing an entire new generation of ways in which we access knowledge and information.

“We’ve always talked about a kind of Google for the brain so somehow you could just think it instead of needing to access it. This is the beginnings of that interface, and at the moment we’re using a textual interface and doing search queries in that way and I think that’s going to evolve quite quickly to be a voice command primarily.

“But there’s also emotional recognition systems and so that we think will be plugged into these things, so we imagine the virtual assistant having the capabilities to assess things about the user as they interact with the service.”


Implanted virtual assistants

With VAs constantly with us, Brauer sees it as likely that eventually the technology will progress to an implant.

“I think that we’ve moved from desktops, to laptops, to mobiles, to wearables to this VA, which is an almost angelic, formless technology which can shapeshift into various devices and settings,” he says.

“As a result of that its going to start to become really critical that they are with you all the time, and we’ve got our phones with us all the time in most cases, but even at that it’s a significant liability to have this physical device augmenting your everyday lives.

“If there was a way for the phone capabilities and all of the richness to be integrated as an implant option, I think a lot of people would consider that. If it’s your gateway to the world, and you carry it with you then it makes more sense to have it within you.”


Virtual assistants and death

With VAs having such a significant role in our lives, it is perhaps inevitable that they would become invaluable assets upon our death.

Brauer says he was surprised at how much this topic came up within his research, but it is clearly a matter that people are concerned with.
“People are really starting to be aware of how deeply involved these things would get with our lives, how that may mean that they know you better than anyone else, and then if you pass away you need to deal with that as an asset effectively,” he says.

VAs could play a number of roles in death, such as providing a resource about you for future generations of your family.

“Your VA is something that has infinite knowledge of you and therefore can serve as a really rich depository of information and capabilities for people of future generations to understand, so we can imagine whole generations of families working with a VA in a fluid way as it transports across generations,” he explains.

For many, VAs will be a key feature in wills as an important asset to protect.

There would be a lot that were incorporated into wills, they’ll be quite robust assets in a lifetime because they’ll contain not just all this knowledge about you but the experiences

“There would be a lot that were incorporated into wills, they’ll be quite robust assets in a lifetime because they’ll contain not just all this knowledge about you but the experiences and so on,” says Brauer.

For notable individuals, VAs could even be used as valued historical documents and bequeathed to respected research institutions.

“You could donate your VA for example to research or to charity; museums would have VAs of particular individuals that were available,” adds Brauer.

In the long run, though, VAs could fundamentally change humanity as we know it.

Many believe we are quickly heading towards the singularity – where machines become capable of creating even better machines, initiating a cycle of development humans have no place in.

In this situation, we would need to augment ourselves to avoid being left behind by these machines, and Brauer sees VAs as a key part of this.
“Virtual assistants are very much a product of that trajectory to a transhuman state, to very much a human-cyborg relationship where us and technology become one, not distinct, entities and what it means to be human changes.”


Cortana image courtesy of Microsoft 

Age of the digital nomad: The plan to abandon cities in favour of freelance freedom

Can you imagine a future where the desire for mobility and human connection is so strong that people reject traditional city lifestyles to work from technology-focused intentional communities? We find out whether digital urban nomadism could become a mass movement.

The rise of what has been labelled ‘mass digital nomadism’ and the emergence of the urban digital nomad, or ‘nuppy’, is described in a recent report produced by Montreal-based trend forecasting agency Logomachy, a team of four 21 to 28 year olds led by Guillaume Dumas. Trained in social science, but working as a freelance programmer and web designer, Dumas says Logomachy’s aim is to explore what will be big in five or ten years’ time.

The nuppy is entrepreneurial, adventurous, liberal, and a traveller with a high level of digital literacy. The nuppy is ready to take advantage of a cosy apartment on wheels, a cheap and versatile tiny house, for an initial investment of a few years’ rent, in order to have the freedom to live anywhere. This must be with the right people, however, who are defined as “skilled and enthusiastic professionals, attracted to homogeneous and thriving communities”.

These communities are expected to become “cultural hubs for the global subculture”, specialised around different lifestyles (such as veganism and organic farming), shared interests (for example, videogames or hip hop), alternative spiritual practices, political ideologies and sexual identities – not dissimilar subreddits.

“In that sense, mass digital nomadism will be for intentional communities what Reddit has been for internet micro-cultures,” states the report, “concentrating people interested in a particular topic or lifestyle and helping them to reach the critical mass essential for building a healthy and blossoming community.”


The appeal of nomadism

It is a combination of personal experiences and forecasted trends that led Logomachy’s report in this particular direction. These include the fact that freelancers are expected to make up 40% of the American workforce by 2020 (an Intuit 2020 study, among others, supports this), the prediction that computerisation, artificial intelligence and automation will affect almost half of US employment (according to the 2013 study ‘Future of Employment’) and increasing competition for freelancers from developing markets such as India.

Other factors are the prohibitive prices of living in the city, meaning mortgages and pensions become harder to attain with diminishing freelance earnings, as well as the growth of the tiny house movement.

On top of this, Dumas says there are two major flaws with cities: they restrict both mobility and community. “In a world where the main language is money, it is hard to get out and go somewhere else,” he says. “Mobility is where you have your power, so we thought the concept of mobility was fundamental.”


Shared values in communal living

As for community, while Dumas was travelling in California he experienced life as part of a co-operative of over 100 students aged 18 to 27. There he realised how efficient and effective a community could be, made up from people with “real shared values” who live, cook and work together. “That kind of community is so strong,” he says, “stronger than anything else that exists on earth.”

Dumas also feels that specialisation is “very important to maximise the vibe of the community” and reveals that he spends between 30 and 60 minutes a day on Reddit. “It allows the most marginal communities to end up with 5,000 subscribers or maybe 50,000 – when you put the planet together you can have a lot of people exchanging on a really narrow topic,” he says. “You can end up with the right people for you – it’s not just saving a few bucks a month, it’s about living with people who share values with you.”

So, Logomachy’s paper was born – designed as an answer to these growing trends and also as a combined solution for the loss of mobility and loss of community in the city.


The future of work

The rise of freelance workers and the various disruptions to the future of our work aren’t just predictions for America, they are expected to have impacts all over the Western World. A recent report from the UK’s Commission for Employment and Skills, titled ‘The Future of Work: Jobs and Skills in 2030’, points to several forthcoming changes to business and society and comments that “their long-term impact on UK jobs and skills will be significant”, with the low-skilled facing limited opportunities.

The report highlights factors such as emerging economies acquiring stronger representation in global production chains, demographic change and migration changing the face of the workforce, technical developments changing traditional modes of working and business organisational structures becoming more flexible and networked.

The desire for a better work-life balance, the need for greater flexibility in the workplace, the growing diversity of the workforce and digitalisation of production processes (for example, automated processes and 3D printing) are given as some of the most plausible trends. Disruptions include zero-hour contracts and flexible working arrangements. Obvious examples of this development include Netflix and, more recently, Virgin offering unrestricted vacation policies to workers.

48% of respondents envision a future where robots and digital agents have displaced more jobs than they have created

But is the technological threat as severe as it seems? Logomachy’s report refers to an internet study from the Pew Research Centre in the US, titled ‘AI, Robotics and the Future of Jobs’, which canvassed nearly 2,000 expert responses on the impact of AI and robotics on the future of employment. It found that 48% of respondents envision a future where robots and digital agents have displaced more jobs than they have created, pushing workers to migrate towards freelance work.

But what about the other 52%? This portion of respondents actually expects that technology will not displace more jobs than it creates by 2025, believing in the power of human ingenuity to create different work options. Ben Shneiderman, professor of computer science at the University of Maryland, is one such expert.


Embracing new technology

“I believe in the unbounded creativity of humans, who, as technology advances will find ever more novel ways to earn a living by providing products and services,” Shneiderman says. “Automated tools amplify human abilities and enable them to take on ever more ambitious projects.”

According to Pew Research, in 2013 there were 112,820 web developers and 165,100 computer network support specialists in the US, jobs that didn’t even exist back in 1999, and there are many more examples like this – while jobs such as bookkeeping, clerical work are expected to give way to computerisation.

But Dumas believes that we exist in an exponential universe right now. “When we create new jobs, we’re already going to have AI,” he says, “so the rate that jobs are computerised will just accelerate.”

However, Shneiderman thinks that disruptions will be new work styles and new opportunities will arise because of adventurous social innovators and advancing technologies. “The WWW is a huge facilitator of co-working and other forms of collaboration,” he says, giving the rise of co-working as an example.

In some ways the idea of Logomachy’s intentional communities could be viewed as a natural step on from the ever-growing co-working phenomenon. In fact Dr Helen Jarvis, a reader in social geography at Newcastle University, who specialises in intentional communities, work and employment, says the notion of a new social movement shaped by footloose e-lancers is not far-fetched at all. “Indeed, it extends some of the practices we already find in digital hubs around the country,” she says.


Intentional community challenges

In a post-material age of austerity, Jarvis says that we are witnessing a yearning for deeper relationships with others and with the natural and built landscape of a cherished place of belonging. This fits well into Logomachy’s prediction for a future movement towards nuppy communities – but how feasible is the idea?

Jarvis believes that a future in which complex self-organising communities will form around specific lifestyle interests is far-fetched and fails to appreciate how communities form and function in reality. “It is the ‘social architecture’ of collective self-organisation – not trivial lifestyle fads – that bind people together in pursuit of common intentions and goals,” she says.

There are other challenges that all communities face. Alexander Aisher, an anthropologist based at Sussex University, who runs the DecisionSeed participatory decision-making workshops for organisations, says that the free rider problem and tragedy of the commons (the overuse of resources) stalk the borders of the best-intentioned communities.

There is a strong experimental quality to the whole endeavour, which requires a certain mind-set from its participants

He also points out that while some issues have been partially addressed by online communities, which themselves possess “commons-like” characteristics, such as anti-trolling processes on reddit, people in a community need to discuss the difficult issues from the earliest stages. “This is extremely difficult when everyone is feeling so elevated by the vision,” he says. “There is a strong experimental quality to the whole endeavour, which requires a certain mind-set from its participants.”

While Logomachy’s community will have technology at its heart, Chris Roth, editor of Communities magazine in the US, reminds us that in reality communitarians have very diverse attitudes towards technology. “I’m not sure how viable an exclusively tech-work-oriented community would be in the long term,” he explains. “I believe that for a healthy community to emerge there would need to be others in the community to ‘ground’ it and hold it together on the interpersonal and community level.”

He says he can see a niche for the kind of community Logomachy describes, but underlines how diversity (internal, not just external) is often the “spice of life” in a community.


Mass vs elite: Social Darwinism?

Dumas acknowledges that all the possibilities haven’t yet been explored, but thinks there’s scope for the communities to develop and grow beyond its obvious 20 to 30 year old single nuppy demographic. “It’s more about having role models,” he says. “Can kids benefit from a community of loving, sharing people? Absolutely.” Yet he concedes that a tiny house could be a bit small for a family of four.

Building something in common rather than competing is what Logomachy’s vision is all about. “We try to bet on human solidarity over the technological threat,” he says, adding that virtual reality could happen in 15 years, a revolution that could expand the way we work anywhere.

Dumas also admits that the word “mass” is “a bit tricky” for the digital nomadism concept. “I really doubt this is for anybody – I think it takes courage, it takes will and it takes a bit of money to have that kind of house and a business,” he says. “It’s kind of an elitist project, but, then again, it’s the story of life – it’s like social Darwinism.”


Images courtesy of Nate Bolt.