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Computers That Know What You Need, Before You Ask

Expect Labs' MindMeld app uses predictive computing to push information to us, instead of us having to ask.
Courtesy of Expect Labs
Expect Labs' MindMeld app uses predictive computing to push information to us, instead of us having to ask.

We're already giving voice instructions to virtual personal assistants, like Apple's Siri. But artificial intelligence is getting even smarter. The next wave of behavior-changing computing is a technology called anticipatory computing — systems that learn to predict what you need, even before you ask.

Google Now, which is available on tablets and mobile devices, is an early form of this. You can ask it a question like, "Where is the White House?" and get a spoken-word answer. Then, Google Now recognizes any follow-up questions, like "How far is it from here?" as a human would — the system realizes you're still asking about the White House, even without you mentioning the search term again. It's an example of how anticipatory computing is moving the way we interact with devices from tapping or typing to predictive voice control.

"That's what is the next wave of computing, in my opinion," says venture capitalist Om Malik, who founded the technology news site, Gigaom.

Malik says smart virtual assistants using this technology are necessary to clear the digital clutter in our lives. The more we add apps and digital functions we need to perform on our devices, the more individually tapping or typing for each function becomes a hassle.

"As we become more digital, as we use more things in the digital realm, we just need time to manage all that. And it is not feasible with the current manual processes. So the machines will learn our behavior, how we do certain things, and start anticipating our needs," Malik says.

For example, if you're traveling, anticipatory devices fetch flight-delay or gate information automatically. Or they mesh the data in your calendar with maps to guide you from one appointment to the next.

During the NPR interview with Malik, we used an experimental app to help supply background information, photos and video on my tablet. The app — called MindMeld — listened in on our conversation and pulled up relevant information on my screen. For example, when I said Om Malik's name, his biographical information like a Wikipedia entry, news coverage of Malik and more showed up for me instantly. It's like Siri on steroids, capable of listening in on a conversation with as many as eight people at once.

"[Anticipatory computing] is gonna get good enough in certain areas that we're gonna wonder how we ever lived without it," says Tim Tuttle. His Expect Labs created the MindMeld technology.

"We now have all these devices with all these great sensors that can hear us, that can see us, that can know about places that we've been, places we're going, and those signals become the inputs that allow these intelligent assistants to find what we need without requiring us to type searches necessarily," Tuttle says.

Everything you say becomes a piece of data that anticipatory apps use to better understand you.

"The more they know about what you like, what you don't like, where you go, what you're talking, what you're reading, the better they can recommend something for you," Tuttle says.

It can seem kind of creepy — all our data going to these companies that control the technology. Malik says he's OK with trading in his data for the convenience promised by these computers. (He wrote about this trade-off in a piece for Fast Company.)

"Twenty years ago we were all squeamish about instant messaging. Then we got squeamish about Facebook," Malik says. "There is something inevitable about technology. It is scary, but at the same time, it is inevitable."

Tuttle says the change to these magic computers won't come that fast.

"There's still this mismatch of expectations that people have. They expect the Star Trek computer on day one," he says. We may not be quite there yet, but the era of magical computing is beginning.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Elise Hu is a host-at-large based at NPR West in Culver City, Calif. Previously, she explored the future with her video series, Future You with Elise Hu, and served as the founding bureau chief and International Correspondent for NPR's Seoul office. She was based in Seoul for nearly four years, responsible for the network's coverage of both Koreas and Japan, and filed from a dozen countries across Asia.
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