IBM and the future of digital assistants: Building superhumans

The IBM Think Conference showcases some fascinating human enhancements that will shortly begin our evolution from human to hybrid-human to and beyond. It’s a fast-approaching future where we are individually more capable, and far less likely to be hurt, than we are today.

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[Disclosure: IBM is a client of the author.]

I’m at IBM Think and PartnerWorld this week and I’m getting a strong view of the future. While we’re surrounded by digital assistants like Siri and Alexa, let’s face it: they’re pretty stupid and not true AIs. They basically use their limited intelligence to automate web searches and then convert text to speech to read you the results. Watson is very different and few of us have access to it, but it’s a true deep learning AI…and that means it can form opinions on its own and act autonomously to our benefit.

IBM had several examples of the coming future. By appraising some of these examples and applying a soupçon of intuition, you can begin to understand how massively this technology will change our lives in a few years.

Pervasive scanners

One of the more interesting presentations from IBM labs was a potential sensor suite that would surround us and feed our Watson-based digital assistant. Sensors – initially attached to our smartphones, and eventually built into our appliances and utensils – will sense bacteria and alert us that what we are buying, preparing or about to eat is unsafe.

I don’t know about your last bout of food poisoning, but mine was recent…and it’s both a memorable and potentially very embarrassing experience if you can’t get to a bathroom quickly enough. I fly a lot and my “experience” hit when the plane was landing, and the seatbelt sign was on. Thankfully, the attendants didn’t block my access to the bathroom, otherwise the entire plane would have known quite graphically about my problem. I’d like to avoid ever repeating that experience.

This sensor net as it wrapped around us could not only identify food that could make us sick but could alert on unsafe conditions in the air (from gasses to pathogens) and provide a significant protection against the next pandemic. A digital assistant using this technology could save hundreds of thousands of lives, turning it from a toy to a must-have device that ensures our lives aren’t ended prematurely.  

Project Debater and the Hybrid AI

One of the most interesting demonstrations was a live debate between a prototype hybrid AI called Project Debater and one of the world’s top debate champions. What was fascinating was that while Project Debater lost the debate, it did so largely because it wasn’t human. It had more facts, more humor and vastly better organization…but it couldn’t appeal to our emotions, so its human competitor was able to create more fear, uncertainty and doubt.

What struck me is that with one change, Project Debater would have likely won. Rather than have a digital assistant voice speaking directly to the audience, it could feed a teleprompter for a human – one that was naturally charismatic and used to unrehearsed teleprompter work (like a TV news host) – to read as if they were his or her own words. They would have been able to appear more human, and been more compelling than the debate champion, who was not charismatic and had to perform alone.

Now imagine this capability in a set of smart glasses when you’re in a disagreement with your kid, your spouse, your boss, a police officer, a judge, a teacher or your own parent. You’d be the demi-god of arguments, able to use the vast knowledge of Watson and present your argument with facts, figures, applied humor and a level of knowledge that would stun anyone that didn’t have this access.

It could even quietly alert you to fake news, or whether someone was taking advantage of you or telling you a false or self-serving story. This would enhance our lives, give us greater status (argumentative theory) and protect us from many if not all the stupid things we might otherwise be saying.  

The hybrid human

I’ve been talking about Project Debater as a hybrid-AI, but combined with the aforementioned sensor suite, you effectively become a hybrid human, tied much more closely to the assistant and better able to respond to threats and opportunities you currently can’t see or effectively address. The digital assistant matures from being something that regurgitates the web into a near superpower, going far beyond what a human assistant can now do, and significantly enhancing your ability to both protect yourself and advance your status and career.

We talk about the host of smart devices that will increasingly surround us as if they are the end game, but it will really be the AI behind them that will make this all work. With smart glasses, smart hearing aids, smart watches, smart clothing and a host of smart sensors, the real intelligence will be what they are connected to, not what they contain. And once we get that right, we’ll give the fictional Bionic Man and Woman a run for their money…at least with regard to what we perceive and how we are perceived.

Fortunately for us, IBM is laser-focused on enhancing life for everyone, because if they weren’t, this technology could easily either create a new ruling class or obsolesce humanity. Here’s hoping IBM remains on the right track.

Copyright © 2019 IDG Communications, Inc.

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