Smartphones, the Internet of Things, and the Death of Software

Inventions that change our lives are magical. They pry us free from physical laws. The printing press enabled the thoughts of a distant writer to multiply, spread, and live forever. The telephone stretched casual conversations – conversations that would have barely crossed a dining room table – until they spanned the globe. Remember what Steve Jobs called the personal computer? A bicycle for your mind.

For the next big thing to be the Next Big Thing, it must be magical. It must free us from some constraint that seemed immovable the day before. In what ways are we still bound to a technological or mechanical necessity?

The Internet in Your Pocket

What is it about the smartphone that has made it so influential? At a tangible level, the smartphone is a combination of technologies: a touch screen, user-friendly software, mobile chips, compact batteries. But at a more abstract level, the smartphone is The Internet in Your Pocket. Of all its contributions, I think it’s the always-on, always-connected, and always-with-you nature of the smartphone that has been its defining trait. The smartphone connects us to the teeming whole of human ideas, at all times and everywhere.

The untethered freedom of the Internet in Your Pocket has had both quantitative and qualitative effects on how we use the Internet. We spend more time on it than ever, and we also spend that time in new ways: messaging, social media, sharing photos, watching TV and movies, etc. Almost every app of consequence on my iPhone is backed by some kind of Internet-based API. My iPhone is pretty boring when it’s in Airplane Mode.

The smartphone transformed the Internet from a thing we use in one place into a thing we use anyplace. The difference between the corner of your kitchen and everywhere is hard to overstate. It’s for this reason that I respond to some people’s exuberance about the Internet of Things with a smirk. The Internet in Your Pocket is way more interesting than the Internet in Your Toaster. The latter is an incremental change that builds upon what the smartphone has begun. I don’t expect web-connected home appliances to change the lives of the people who buy them, certainly not at the magnitude that the smartphone has changed them.

The Death of Software

Rather than an Internet of Things, I like to imagine that a truly intelligent, ubiquitous artificial intelligence would change our lives to a similar degree that the smartphone has.

Through the present day, our concept of software has been a more-or-less static arrangement of logic and design. The user has a goal (manage her tasks, be entertained, etc.). The app is built to help her meet that goal. But the user has to squeeze her life into a shape that conforms to the software. If she’s lucky, there’s at least one app that fits her well enough to get the job done. But even the best piece of software still has rough edges. It’s indirect. It has a learning curve. It’s unaware of her context, and unwilling or unable to act in concert with other apps the user needs.

A truly intelligent artificial entity, as I envision it, would turn this situation upside down. Instead of the user conforming to the software, the software would conform to the user – a deceptively simple change that would have vast implications.

Software concepts that have been with us since the beginning of the personal computer would no longer be relevant. For example, apps as discreet experiences would be obsolete. There would no longer be any need for a web browser, a messaging app, a todo list app, etc. There would only be one app: the interaction between the user and the AI. Everything else would be built on an ad-hoc basis, in real-time, then thrown away:

"What do I have to do today?"The AI constructs a todo list, artfully typeset and formatted to compliment the tastes of the user.

"My kid won’t stop crying. Can you make him a game?"The AI constructs a simple game pitting the child’s dog as a hero versus his villainous school teachers. The levels progress according to patterns established by well-designed games of yesteryear.

"Where should we eat?"The AI presents what amounts to a Yelp-like interface, built from scratch using everything it knows about your family, what you eat in general, food allergies, what food you haven’t had lately, how long it takes to arrive and order food, etc. It’s not a startup’s MVP. It’s just for you.

And these are just the effects that such an AI might have on a personal electronic device. One can easily imagine the huge changes that such an entity could bring to medical care documentation, scientific research, and more. For every stereotypical bit of AI science fiction, there are dozens of life-changing applications that would be too boring to put in a film, even if they’d make a fortune.

Software, instead of feeling like a sea of half-baked ideas with a few rare gems, would feel like the bicycle of the mind you’ve always wanted but never thought possible.

I like to imagine this kind of AI growing out of an industry like video games. It’s not hard to imagine a time when gaming hardware is so powerful that there aren’t enough artists to create objects at the full level of detail that the hardware is able to render. To keep pushing the level of realism, a team of game developers would undertake the task of creating an AI with intuition and taste. Level designers would interact with the AI in loose, human terms:

"Make it gloomier."

"Put a neighborhood here with two story houses. Wait, three stories. These four need flood damage."

"The guy who lives here reads comics and he’s been on vacation for a few months."

The AI level designer would respond to comments like these by assembling realistic worlds and objects – not procedurally generated stuff, which would look intentionally random, but realistically generated stuff: a tarp covering a leaky roof; dog’s nose prints on a storm door; soggy U-Haul boxes; a stack of mail. The game developers will think they’ve built a design tool, but what they’ll actually have built is the death of software as we know it.

The question that makes me uncomfortable with this idea: if this were to happen, what would happen to software developers?

|  27 May 2014