The world talks back

Today, I spoke to a green, plastic dinosaur. And he talked back.

In this post I'll discuss what this tells us about the future, and what the most important question will be for designers in the coming decade.

More and more of the objects in our lives are going to have that ability to converse with us over the next decade. For most people, this phenomenon started with a bit of a whimper as we were exposed to smartphone services like Siri, Google Now, and Cortana. Over time these mostly disappointing voice-based personal assistants have got a bit better, but they still aren't good enough to make us all abandon apps and the keyboard, and their integration with other apps and services is only just beginning to happen. Their abilities don't in any way rival that of a real human assistant. But that will change. And fairly fast. Personal assistants will be one of the next big platform battles. 

A future of voice and personal assistants

Voice-based AI is coming to a device near you. Soon. But it won't just be with devices. Expect voice to be everywhere. Google's personal assistant, Amazon Alexa, Microsoft Cortana, and newcomer Viv are about to battle it out for our attention. You will be able to access these voice services through a wide range of new devices. Amazon has taken an early lead with the Amazon Echo family of devices and it's Amazon Fire TV. But expect a massive wave of new products coming in the Christmas 2016 timeframe.

Over the last few years I've been watching the following trends play out and head on a collision course towards something pretty cool:

  1. Smart, connected objects
  2. "Conversation as a service" and chatbots
  3. AI
  4. Personal assistants

Cheap computing and connectivity, combined with exponential improvements in AI, chat bots, and personal assistant (PA) technologies, are going to yield the ability for many objects in our world to hold meaningful conversations with us. When this capability gets good enough (and we are getting pretty close) we can look forward to much simpler interfaces on everything from our washing machines to our cars. We will also each have a digital personal assistant that we can reach almost anywhere, and through any device, to help us through our days. Computing is going to get even more personal. Especially when those voice services move into our ears with a new breed of in-ear wearables. But that's not what this post is all about. This is a story about the future of smart objects and AI.

you can glimpse the future in a piece of green plastic

Nowhere is this technology future perhaps more starkly on display than in the package that arrived in my mailbox recently. It was my birthday, so when I opened the box that the postman had delivered I first wondered if it was to be some kind of birthday present. Turns out it was a birthday present from myself. One that I sent from the past to my future present self. About four months ago I went online and ordered myself a Cognitoys Dino as part of a Kickstarter campaign. If you haven't seen one of these yet, let me enlighten you. And then we'll get into why this little piece of green plastic is so important.

Meet Jimmy, my dino. I say "my dino" because I named him. It was as simple as pressing the button on his tummy and saying, "Your name is Jimmy".

Setup was a breeze. Once I'd popped in the batteries, the dinosaur told me in his muppet-like voice that I should download the Cognitoys app to my phone. The app allowed me to enter my name, connect to the wifi hotspot in the dinosaur, and then connect him to my own home wifi network. It was a breeze and I was up and running in less than two minutes.

From what I could tell in my very preliminary testing, Cognitoys have done a very nice job of building what could be a wonderful toy for a child. I found myself wishing that I could wipe away four decades or so and enjoy him as a 6-year old kid. My new friend Jimmy seems happy to tell me jokes, answer my questions, engage me in conversation, and teach me things along the way. The experience has been cleverly designed to teach kids about the world by engaging them in stories that trigger their imagination. They probably don't even realize that they're learning. To them, they're just having a conversation with their friend and playing a game.

So, why is this little piece of plastic such a big deal?

Let's be honest, the physical piece of what Cognitoys has created is nice, but not really that impressive. When you boil it down, what you are buying is a piece of moulded plastic, a button, a light, a microphone, and a speaker, all connected to a cheap little computer that can connect to wifi. But that's not what you're really buying here. That's only the physical piece of the value you are purchasing. The true value is in the simple device's connection to an IBM Watson supercomputer in the cloud. That's the bit that enables a child to hold a conversation with it, to explore the world through story and imagination, and to start to build bonds with a new talking friend.

A small, green dinosaur signals much about our future

All product designers should take note of this simple little piece of green plastic. It demonstrates a new choice that every designer will need to make in the near future for all new projects: What portion of the value and experience that I want to create exists in the physical domain, and what portion in the digital domain?

My contention is that almost every product will become a "smart" product. The plummeting cost of computing and connectivity coupled with the high value of making an object smart and connected, means that most "things" in our world will cease to be dumb. Physical products will become a portal through which digital value can be delivered. In this case, that value is a conversation with an AI that has been tuned to teach kids about the world through the use of story, humour, games, and interaction. But the value could come in many different forms, as I'll discuss shortly.

The electronics element of the Cognitoys Dinosaur is pretty simple and inexpensive. Building a conversational service on top of IBM Watson that's tuned for kids took a lot to develop, I'm sure. But this piece of the product is incredibly scalable. So if Cognitoys sell a lot of these toys, and I hope they do, they will make bank. Because the margin on those plastic toys must be pretty healthy, and the AI that brings the dinosaur to life scales at very low marginal cost. 

The Proverbial Wallet, created at the MIT Media Lab by David Rose and his team. The wallet has a variable strength hinge, connected wirelessly to your bank account. As the funds in your account dwindle, your wallet literally becomes harder to open. A clever solution to help people better understand their spending in a very visceral way. 

The Proverbial Wallet, created at the MIT Media Lab by David Rose and his team. The wallet has a variable strength hinge, connected wirelessly to your bank account. As the funds in your account dwindle, your wallet literally becomes harder to open. A clever solution to help people better understand their spending in a very visceral way. 

The connected service element of a product need not be as complex as the conversational service deployed in this dinosaur, however. I've spoken before about the experimental wallet that was produced at MIT. Most people have little or no understanding of their current bank balance. MIT's smart, connected wallet becomes harder to open as the balance in your bank account ebbs, making it harder for someone to unknowingly overspend. 

So what does all this mean?

We are starting to see glimpses of the next era of personal computing, one characterized by voice, IOT, personal assistants, chatbots, AI, and ultimately augmented reality. The combination of these elements will ultimately replace today's mobile/app compute model to become the predominant way people interact with information and services. The race is on to develop the new platforms and technology behind this new infrastructure. More on that in my next post.

Within a decade, smartphones, those little slabs of computing goodness that we hold so dearly, will follow the PC and the mainframe into a world of ever-diminishing relevance to daily life. Sure, they will still be around the way the PC is still around, but the new way of getting things done in daily life will involve smartphones and apps a lot less than it does today.

Prepare for a world where wearables, smart spaces and smart objects are able to have complex conversations with you and help you through your day. Just look at what Amazon is already doing with their family of Echo products, and the Alexa voice platform.

Jimmy the Dino is the beginning of something marvelous.