Smart apps think (so you don't have to)

A new generation of free intelligent assistant apps represents the future of everything. But are they too smart?

Technologies that end up improving lives and changing culture often seem trivial when they're brand new.

Blogging, for example, began as a way to keep an online diary but has evolved to a medium that's transforming journalism and business.

Social media started out as a way for teenagers and college students to flirt with one another, but it has become one of the primary ways people discover content online.

Likewise, a brand-new generation of smart apps may appear to be limited toys for geeks and productivity enthusiasts. In fact, they represent first steps toward the future of all human-machine interaction -- a future in which we hold conversations with our computers and they get to know us, learn how to suggest things, solve some of our everyday problems and go out into the world doing chores on our behalf.

This new category appears to contain far-flung and divergent capabilities. Generally, they have the ability to do one or more of the following:

  • Learn user context and preferences. By paying attention to our choices and behaviors, software learns to predict what we'll want.
  • Rely on artificial intelligence to make decisions. Algorithms enable software to discern between relevant and irrelevant incoming information.
  • Contact users to provide contextually relevant information. Rather than waiting for us to search for something, they can buzz our phones with answers to questions we haven't asked.
  • Act proactively. Instead of waiting for us to take action, they take action for us.
  • Automate tasks. Either users or the software can set up if-then commands like programmers do, and they can do so across different applications and services.
  • Communicate as the user. Software learns to know who you'll communicate with and what you'll say, then does it for you. To the recipient, it appears as though the message comes from you. When both parties are using software agents to communicate, it's just software talking to software.
  • Facilitate users' actions. Agents figure out what you'll want to do and get it ready for you. By pressing a single button, you can tell the system to do something that would otherwise be a multi-step process.
  • Act with agency on the user's behalf. Software does something for you without asking permission or informing you in advance.

It all sounds science-fictionish and Star Trekky. But these capabilities are already available in free apps and Web-based services and will increasingly be added to most of our apps, services, websites and consumer products.

Some of these services act as a user interface for existing apps and services, and others function as a kind of glue.

Apple's Siri, for example, is mostly a user interface for a variety of services. You talk, and something is added to your calendar. You talk again, and you set a reminder in a different app. At Mobile World Congress last month, a company called Artificial Solutions introduced a Siri-like app called Indigo for non-Apple devices -- specifically Android and Windows Phone devices.

If This Then That (IFTTT) is a good example of a smart service that acts primarily as glue. (If somebody sells a time machine on Craigslist, then sends me a message on Facebook.)

It's not immediately clear that everybody will embrace "smart" apps, services and features. I suspect that smart features will start showing up in so many places all at once that users will feel overwhelmed and confused, unable to understand which services are doing what.

That's why I'm a big fan of an iOS app called EasilyDo, which does something I like to call "facilitated reality." Instead of just doing things for you, it notifies you about things you probably want to do, and then does them for you only after you tap the "Do It" button.

It's like a caddy that discovers the best nearby golf course, drives you there, carries your clubs and tees up the ball for you. All you have to do is hit the ball (or decide not to).

As an example, EasilyDo reads your friends' Facebook posts and can tell the difference between good, bad and indifferent news. Let's say a friend announces that he was promoted at work. EasilyDo recognizes the nature of the post, notifies you and tees up a "Congratulations!" comment to the friend's post. You just have to press one button for "your" comment to be posted by "you." (You can edit the message if you want to.)

The app can do all kinds of powerful things. It can tell you when to leave your office in order to be on time for your next meeting, or remind you to pay bills based on incoming email.

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