We really should plan to phase out cash in the next five years or so — it’s a vestigial remnant of a bygone era. Carrying various shards of metal and pieces of coloured paper around in our pockets that also contain powerful computers makes very little sense. But the current haphazard move to cashless at the whim of individual businesses is not in the public interest.
It’s strange to see people posing for photos outside a convenience store. But there’s a steady stream treating Amazon’s Go Store in Seattle like a tourist attraction. Indeed, Amazon refer to each visit you make to the store as a “trip”. But it’s not really about selfies in front of the store — this is a big move by Amazon to change the way we shop offline, which still accounts for the vast majority of shopping — a market worth trillions of dollars.
As I researched my latest book, The New Acceleration, a few things became very clear:
Artificial Intelligence (AI) is progressing at incredible speed
Most people have little awareness of whether, how and where it’s being used to affect their daily lives already
Nobody is very sure what level of regulation is required
AI is going to change pretty much everything
The Google I/O Conference keynote was a relentless stream of announcements that are far greater than the sum of their parts. Each individual revelation was impressive in isolation but, taken together, they represent a massive statement of intent from the world’s leading AI company. Years of investment in AI are coming to fruition at an astonishing pace. I don’t recall a keynote with so many announcements. Some will doubtless fail; many will fall short of the slick demonstrations once they make it into the real world. But make no mistake, most will soon come to be a part of everyday life for hundreds of millions of people.
Last year, the top 15 US companies combined spent over $150 billion dollars on R&D. That’s an awful lot of money to maintain a competitive edge when the returns are so uncertain. Alphabet (Google’s parent company) spends some 15% of its net revenues on R&D, while non-tech consumer companies tend to spend less than 2%. The top 5 spenders were all tech companies.
We’re just at the start of a new revolution in photography — where we’re no longer always the ones taking the photos. With all the recent talk about robots and Artificial Intelligence (AI) replacing humans, who would have thought that photographers would be among the activities in the firing line so soon? Yet three product launches in recent months point to a suddenly impending change where we’re no longer the ones composing the best images.
I was caught off guard by the coverage of the Netflix tweet that 53 people had watched the movie A Christmas Prince every day for 18 days. Some headlines and social media users branded it “creepy” but for me, the only creepy thing was the shocking naivety of anyone who is actually surprised.
AR is here and it could be a real menace
It’s hard to think of any photograph that isn’t improved by the addition of a stormtrooper. Google’s latest update to the camera app on the Pixel phone allows you to add a stormtrooper (or other characters, but let’s face it, Stormtroopers are still the coolest even though it’s 40 years since Star Wars first hit the screens) to any photo or video. This is a very mainstream example of Augmented Reality technology in action. And while it’s huge fun, it begs enormous questions about the future of visual evidence.
While you can see more AI around, in eerily accurate Amazon and Netflix “you might also like this” recommendations; widespread coverage of DeepMind learning to play Go better than any human; and in self-driving cars that roam the streets of Silicon Valley, the next time I was personally aware of the progress of these technologies was when I took a photograph of a flower and Google Lens informed me it was a “Bird of Paradise”. Suddenly, technology was able to “understand” an image and determine its contents, which is exponentially harder than understanding text in an email.
AI, after many false dawns, is becoming very real. A concerted effort from academics and corporates, the availability of massive quantities of data inputs for machine learning and rapid advances in processing power have brought us to an inflection point. AI and its various subset technologies are now sufficiently advanced to take on high-level decision-making tasks previously the preserve of humans — and to do them faster and more accurately than we can.
There are glimpses of the future all around us. Well, glimpses of *a* future anyway. Much writing treats the future as if it’s some magical state that will suddenly appear, as if we will one day go to sleep in the present and wake up in a different future — either idyllic or dystopian, depending on your perspective.
What do you have 30 of, use 10 of each day and had none of 10 years ago? The answer — Apps. These little (and increasingly not-so-little) pieces of software that turn your smartphone into a super-power are everywhere. As of September 2017, there are over 3.6 million of them in the Google Play Store for Android, with over 2 million in Apple’s App Store. Despite the fact that it’s an 80+ billion dollar industry that has created about 2 million jobs and it’s only just 10 years old, we don’t tend to think about it very much, with the focus staying on individual apps more than the phenomenon of apps.
For a long time, the only law talked about in technology circles was Moore’s Law. Gordon Moore’s assertion in 1965, that the number of transistors on a microchip would double every 2 years or so, has held true for longer than anybody expected. Although not as widely quoted as Moore’s Law, Amara’s Law is one of my favorite ways of looking at the impact of technology on our world. It observes that we “tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run”.
In a recent article, I referred to Google and Levi’s as an unlikely pairing, but the Oct 17 press conference in Toronto tops that — the Prime Minister of Canada and the Executive Chairman of Alphabet (Google’s parent company) side-by-side announcing a plan to create a new district in Toronto to serve as a test-bed for new urban technology. Is this an example of mega corporations now transcending borders to become ever more entrenched in our lives, with Governments powerless and even complicit? Or is it a progressive and welcome approach to tackling large scale issues affecting millions of lives?
Reviewers comparing the newly announced Google Pixel 2 phones to the iPhone 8/X and the Samsung Galaxy Note/S8 are completely missing the point. While consumers may compare the obvious features and both of the others will massively outsell Google’s effort, the bigger picture is far more important — the Pixel 2 is in fact the first AI-first phone. It’s a kind of smarter smartphone. Look closely and it’s a fascinating glimpse at what lies ahead for the shiny rectangles that have become so pervasive, yet have clearly hit a hardware development plateau compared to the obvious rapid annual advances of years gone by.