29 01 2014
Expanding brainpower—The next phase of economic growth?
One can argue persuasively that the key to the industrial revolution and its deep impact on society was the invention of the steam engine. Suddenly humans weren’t limited by muscle power, either their own or that of domesticated animals. The steam engine and its evolution spurred fast growth in the economy and drove major changes in society and jobs.
We are seeing another major technology transition today that could have a similar impact. Mobile devices and language processing technology are combining to make access to computer intelligence and its huge information resources intuitive and always available. The pairing of these two technologies expands brainpower in an always-available way.
Computers have been expanding our abilities for decades, remembering much more than our brains possibly could and providing fast access to that information. But, historically, we had to be at a specific location (e.g., our PC) to access that information. Smartphones and other web-connected mobile devices are eliminating that restriction.
But availability alone doesn’t solve the problem of making that computer intelligence a natural extension of our brains. Connecting to computer intelligence can at times be challenging, even when sitting at a PC. It would be hard today to do without web search, for example, but the Web has become so large that a list of relevant web sites no longer is as usable as it once was. And typing and navigating on small mobile devices can amplify the usability challenge.
This second wave of technology evolution is thus also being driven by language technology, making computer intelligence available efficiently through natural language. I argued in The Software Society that the “personal assistant model” is the way that that connection will be best implemented. Apple’s Siri is the best-known example, and Google’s natural-language search and voice search are moving in that direction. Nuance Communications, Openstream, and others are providing technology supporting company-specific or application-specific personal assistant technology. An obvious evolution is for general and specific personal assistants to become an integrated experience, just as we easily jump from one web site to another in a browser.
Another component of tightening the human-computer connection is knowledge representation so that we can get as direct an answer as possible to an inquiry. Current personal assistant and search resources try to give direct answers to some questions, such as the score of a recent baseball game. IBM’s Watson is an example of digesting “big data” to provide a succinct answer when the answer requires a complex analysis of multiple data sources. Knowledge representation is synergistic with natural language understanding technology, since providing an answer to a question often involves understanding what answers are available.
The combination of mobile and language technology will make it possible to have an intuitive connection to computer intelligence always with us. This connection will help us with everyday tasks, but also increasingly with our jobs. An individual may not have to go back to school to keep up with the rapidly evolving job market if a mobile device is always available to instruct that person at the time the person most needs that instruction. The human brain works best in retaining information when the usefulness of that information is clearly evident.
The tightening human-computer connection can expand our brainpower. It can hopefully drive an improvement of the human condition and our economy as fundamental as machines expanding our muscle power.