Google CEO Sundar Pichai said on Alphabet’s Q1 earnings call: “In the long run, we will evolve in computing from a mobile-first to an AI-first world”.
This has prompted various speculation on what an AI-first world will look like. Pichai envisages that it will include “assistive” search, “especially on mobile,” suggesting that artificial intelligence (AI) will be the platform for on-demand services accessed from any device – including smartphones.
Dave Coplin, chief envisioning officer at Microsoft UK spoke at the AI Summit in London. He believes that AI first (AI as a platform) will “change how people relate to tech and to each other.” For example, real-time natural language will surely replace translators and interpreters.
Martin Hollywood, lead creative technologist at Razorfish London highlights the role of wearables as notification devices. Voice is emerging as the primary user interface (UI) to manage and facilitate human outcomes/experiences.
Pichai’s prediction of AI-powered mobile assistive search became reality within three weeks of the Alphabet call. On May 9 at TechCrunch Disrupt NY, Siri creator Dag Kittlaus gave the first public demonstration of the next-generation voice assistant Viv.
Voice activated service as software
The key to Viv – and Amazon’s smart speaker Echo and digital assistant Alexa – is natural language. Viv uses sophisticated natural language processing and dynamic program generation, which understands the user’s intent and generates appropriate software to address each query.
While other software platforms have program manager where queries are hard coded, dynamic program generation is scalable – it writes its own software to generate the services that users need. Kittlaus demonstrated “conversational commerce” whereby Viv’s a natural language interface and capacity to deal with follow-up questions (unlike Siri) makes it easy buy products and services. “One sentence and it’s done,” he said. In a 100% live demo Kittlaus completed four transactions in two minutes, ranging from sending $20 (£14) to the friend who paid for last night’s drinks, to getting a taxi for six people.
As AI-first replaces mobile centricity with (personalised) user centricity, brands will need to focus on human outcomes. “The key question will be what experience does your brand enable the consumer to have?” says Coplin. Brands will need to forge a place in the workings of AI engines such as Viv that understand human intent and connect disparate services.
Conversational commerce is already big for brands, says Jason Alan Synder, CTO at Momentum Worldwide. “AI will add contextual intelligence to the brand experience by connecting interactions with relevant services so brands will have to work hard to become part of the vocabulary. If another brand gets to the customer first, via their personalised AI platform, that is really bad news for them.”
Hollywood agrees, highlighting brands’ dual perspective. “2016 is the year of the chatbot”, he says. Beauty brand Sephora’s messaging app, Kik, enables users to get makeup tips, browse and buy products by chatting to the company’s bot. Microsoft’s personal assistant, Cortana, is being integrated into Skype. During the recent Microsoft Build conference in San Francisco, Skype’s Lilian Rincon used Skype and Cortana to book a hotel room, which also suggested she visit a friend who lived nearby. “Brands know that whoever is close to the consumer controls the conversation,” says Snyder.
Dave Cox, head of innovation at MC Saatchi, believes that AI-first will change the nature of app design. “At the moment the starting point might be how an app will work, but instead we may need to start by thinking about how it will communicate,” he says. “The best solution is the one that doesn’t make you think. So UI will get closer to natural communication.”
AI-first will make customers’ interaction with brands intuitive, real-time and personalised, as AI systems tailor the services they facilitate to individual user preferences, observes Joshua Sutton, managing director of Sapient. “Instead of having to conform to the system, the system will conform to you.” Voice as the dominant interface changes the human-machine interaction. “The ease with which we communicate – with Alexa, for example – changes how we interact with it.” Sutton believes this will change the nature of websites, which will need to become more flexible, intuitive and interactive.
The cultural challenge
However, there is a downside too – such as Microsoft’s Tay incident, which has had damaged the perception of intelligent computing. Coplin explains that Tay was a cultural experiment and that in this respect AI-first is a cultural challenge. “We have choices about what we want AI to be,” he says, “Conversational commerce means knowing that we are not always talking to other human beings.” Snyder observes: “Tay was not a technology issue. Rather it was a marketing issue involving how Microsoft chose to introduce it to the world”. Cox agrees that it is important to educate AI responsibly: “Be careful how you bring it up. You wouldn’t let Twitter or 4chan educate your child.” He believes that AI will follow the product life cycle – if it is used badly, it won’t get acceptance.
A lot of the press around AI first focuses on virtual assistants, but AI is not necessarily synonymous with a personally tailored help desk which puts things at people’s fingertips. It is also about how brands interact with customers and target markets. Consequently, as Coplin put it, in an AI-first world, brands are facilitators rather than providers.