Technology should be magical

I often use the cliché that technology should be magical. Unfortunately technology is often cumbersome, hard-to-use, or frustrating. We have all had times when we have wanted to smash a computer screen, bash a printer with a baseball bat, or throw a phone out the window, and I have definitely had my share of those moments.

However, I think that technology is becoming more magical. I still remember that moment when I turned on my first PC and watched a cursor dance to my command. That was magical to a young geek, but that magic has been hard to find for most people. What is starting to happen is that great design, more powerful processors, and almost infinite storage is making much of our interactions with technology less painful. While this makes existing products good, perhaps even great, artificial intelligence and machine learning are starting to make how we use technology in our daily lives magical, even without us asking.

My pertinent example, and the inspiration for this post, came courtesy of Google Now last week. Google Now is part of the new breed of personal assistants that include Alexa, Siri, and Cortana. You can set it up to read your emails and have access to your location, and while many people have privacy concerns, there is a payoff with logistics.

My wife made arrangements for our daughter to join her in California the last week of her summer sabbatical in Laguna Beach. She made the reservations, paid for the ticket, and sent me an email with the airline confirmation. She also put the flight on our family calendar so that I would know when to put our daughter on the plane.

My daughter was at cousin camp in Huntsville for most of July and would need to pick her up before the flight. I decided to go down two days before her flight out of Nashville to spend time with my family. The plan was to go down Friday night, spend Saturday with the fam, then head up to Nashville after dinner and get some rest before putting her on the plan Sunday morning.

On Saturday morning, I sat down to have my breakfast with my daughter and my phone buzzes. If someone is texting me that early in the day, it must be important, so I check my phone. Instead of a text, there is an alert from Google telling me that I need to leave soon to make it to the flight. Strange. Why is it telling me this when the flight isn’t until the next day?

I decide to click on the Google Now card which then takes me to the original email. What I see there shocks me. According to the email, the flight is Saturday, not Sunday.

Screenshot_20160728-170134.png

Example of a Google Now card on my phone. This card is for the return flight. Note that the source is labeled “Email from Kymberlee.” When I clicked on the card, it took me straight to that email.

What I quickly realize is that:

  • the entry in our family calendar is wrong
  • Google Now knew that their was a flight that was important to me. Why? Most likely because the email came from my wife, someone that is considered “important” due to the volume of email we send back and forth.
  • Google knew I was in Huntsville, not Nashville, and knew how long it was going to take me to get to the airport from my parent’s house.
  • Google put these facts together and sent me a timely alert, an alert that I did not explicitly ask for. It “guessed” that these things were important based on fancy algorithms and my past behavior, then decided to send me an alert.

The end result was that I was able to get packed up and on the road in time to make my daughter’s flight, all because of automatic technology. Magical.

This is where technology is heading. Self-driving cars, automatic alerts, and personalized shopping. Much of this will arrive without us having to configure, setup, or use an interface to the technology. Sure, there are plenty of pitfalls in front of us, including security, privacy, and reliability, but we are starting to see glimpses of the future that before were only seen in science fiction movies. My inner geek loves these glimpses!

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