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A few weeks ago, I attempted to sit through Samsung’s live-streamed Galaxy S9 smartphone launch event. Keyword: attempted. I nearly fell asleep at my desk.
Forgive me for not being bowled over by a camera with a mechanical aperture. (Translation: slightly better shots in the dark.) Or the augmented reality emoji. (Translation: Cartoon-you will impress your friends for about 15 seconds.) Or the relocated fingerprint sensor, which is exactly what it sounds like.
I realize this is a first-world problem, but in the 11 years since the release of the iPhone, advances in personal technology have gone from breakthrough to, well, pretty broke. What—and where—is the next revolutionary product, the thing that rewrites the rules and alters our lives forever?
I’ve got some ideas. Just as the smartphone pushed us away from the traditional PC, the next big leap in personal technology will free us from the computers in our pockets. It could be an ordinary-looking pair of glasses that reveals a digital interface overlaid on the world. It might be an omnipresent artificially intelligent assistant that, unprompted, pays our bills, responds to emails and even laughs at our jokes. It may be a robot that cleans up the playroom and grabs you a beer from the fridge when it’s done.
One thing is certain: Whatever it is, it won’t be here soon.
What’s the holdup? Why are we stuck in the waiting room of the future? From my experiences with early versions of those aforementioned products, I assumed the answer was technological. Take Jibo, a $900 robot that interrupted an important conversation I was having with my wife to inform me that it was the birthday of the guy who played Urkel on “Family Matters.”
According to the people who actually build this stuff, the problem is bigger than tech. Bill Buxton, a father of the touch screen and a principal researcher at Microsoft, says it is often the wetware (aka us) that gets in the way.
“The people who have the tech skills may not have the cultural and social skills,” Buxton says. “It’s only when you get all those skills together that you get the perfect storm for the next breakthrough.” Google Glass is a great example. The company was so excited about its headworn computer that it missed the social and privacy concerns, not to mention the hideously geeky design.
Buxton has a theory he calls the Long Nose of Innovation: Every “wow” moment is preceded by a long period of slowly building innovation. A survey of the Next Big Things reveals that the long waiting period is happening now.
The Promise: Augmented-Reality Glasses
The Problem: Inadequate Tech, Trust Issues
Anticipated Arrival: 2022
Engineers developing headsets at major tech companies have told me we’re at least four years from AR glasses that look like Warby Parkers. Don’t like glasses? One startup, InWith Corp., says that in five to 10 years contact lenses with built-in displays will be commonplace. (I’ll believe it when I see it. I’ll be here all night, folks.) But even if the tech was available today, would we want cameras in front of our faces? “Think of the cultural problems,” says James Canton, the CEO and chairman of the Institute for Global Futures. “Do we want a ‘Minority Report’ experience where there’s info popping up all over a retail store?” And in light of recent disclosures, do we really want to give companies like Facebook access to our literal worldview?
The Promise: All-Knowing AI Assistants
The Problem: Unintelligent AI, Trust Issues
Anticipated Arrival: 2030
While Alexa and Siri aren’t exactly Samantha from “Her,” they offer a glimpse of a future where AI does whatever we ask. But first, a “host of breakthroughs have to happen, and none of them are on the horizon,” says Dennis Mortensen, the founder and CEO of X.AI, a company that builds smart scheduling assistants. He says that instead of one all-knowing assistant, we’re likely to see one main assistant connected to others with specific functions. Imagine a future business trip gets extended by a day. Alexa 8.0 will contact the AI assistant that controls your calendar, which in turn will contact your AI travel agent to change your hotel booking and your flight.
Some of these advanced AI systems already exist, and companies are taking steps to link them. The biggest obstacle is trust—in the technology and the companies behind it. Siri is the dumbest but the most trustworthy in terms of data privacy. Google’s Assistant is the smartest, but I trust the search giant less than a Russian “diplomat.”
The Promise: Personal Robots
The Problem: Cost, Unclear Use Cases
Anticipated Arrival: 2025
Ask the experts where our humanoid robots are, and they’ll raise a couple of issues. Robots are expensive. Robot appendages—arms, legs, hands—are currently specialty parts designed for specific use cases, and engineers aren’t quite sure what they should do yet. A likely next step is that our current machines will become more robotlike. There’s the car, which will soon drive itself and perform other “Knight Rider”-like functions. (Of course, self-driving cars are a giant melting pot of technical, political and societal holdups.) There’s the smart home, which Buxton calls an “inside-out robot.” Already our homes are making decisions without us—raising the thermostat, turning off lights, unlocking the door for the delivery guy. The ordinary-looking products in our homes are getting smarter every day, which means the breakthrough moment may go unnoticed. Remind me of that when I’m nodding off with my AR contacts still in.
Copyright The Wall Street Journal 2018