There’s a Robot in Your Pocket

When I was a kid, I dreamed of someday having my own robot. From HAL to R2D2 to KITT, robots were the ultimate technology in my eyes. They could do your chores, order you a pizza, finish your homework, and even warn you when danger was approaching. Today, I’m very excited to see my dream come true because, in fact, there is a robot in each of our pockets.

Let’s begin by drawing the distinction between a tool and a robot. Tools enable us to work more efficiently. Robots do the work for us (in fact, the original word robata means “hard work” in Czech). The vast majority of the Web sites and apps we use today are tools that enable us to work, play and share more efficiently. Over the last few years, through advances in artificial intelligence and data science, Web sites and apps are evolving. There is a new breed of applications focused entirely on working on our behalf. As humans, we constantly seek means to reduce the amount of work needed to reap rewards from a system. While the tools of today allow us to work less, the robots of the future will eliminate much of the work in the first place.

This incredible transformation is happening right before our eyes.

Your Search Robot

A long time ago, we would search for information by painstakingly looking up sources in a card catalog and reading a book. As much of that knowledge moved online, the directory (like Yahoo!) enabled us to browse and find content of interest. In time, the amount of information flowing online overwhelmed the directory — it would simply require too much work to browse the entire Web. Fortunately, a revolutionary tool, search — Google, really — made it very easy to find the documents that contain the answers we’re looking for. But while search presents us with a huge set of choices, it still takes a lot of work to find the answers.

Today, a new technology is eliminating that work by acting on our behalf to find the answers and even solve our problems. Siri is an artificial intelligence client that turns our devices into a virtual assistant. It removes the steps between searching for answers and finding them. Have a question about converting metric units? Ask Siri. Need to order your mother flowers? Let Siri handle that. Need to make dinner reservations for your date Friday? Let Siri do the work for you. And we’re just scratching the surface. We possess the vastness of all human knowledge in our pockets, yet much of our usage is limited to Angry Birds. This transformation to intelligent machines means we no longer have to work as hard to apply the knowledge locked in our devices; they’ll do the work for us.

Your Location Robot

In the 20th century, an enormous yellow book was delivered to our doorstep every year. We would heft this behemoth and flip through hundreds of pages to find a local business or restaurant of interest. Eventually, that process gave way to more efficient tools as local information moved online through apps like CitySearch and Yelp. Recently, via the mobile check-in, we can be presented places of interest and people near our current location. This new layer of geographical context is great, but checking in is still work.

Today, ambient location apps like Foursquare, Radar and Highlight are beginning to do that work for us. By passively monitoring our locations, they alert us to interesting people and places around us. Over time, as they learn our preferences, they’ll be able to filter these places and help us discover the best restaurants and people wherever we are. At last, we are within reach of the “Danger, your ex-girlfriend is in the area!” robot.

Your Personal Robot

Not that long ago, the primary way we would discover new media was through browsing a printed newspaper, magazine rack or record store. As this content moved online, it became much more accessible and real-time. As the option pool grows, we have to put in more and more work to find the content that’s interesting to each of us. There are more and better options than we could ever imagine. But it would take an incredible human effort to find all the needles in the growing haystack.

To address this, many Web sites have offered customization tools for users to focus their experience. But manual customization also requires a lot of work, and it usually fails to paint the rich, dynamic picture of who we are and what we like. Fortunately, a solution is emerging from companies like Pandora (and, full disclosure, my own company, Gravity). Using machine learning, these platforms get to know you based on the things you read about, listen to, or share. They can then move way beyond customization by generating adaptive, personalized experiences that bring the best content on any website or app right to the top. It completely shifts the paradigm from you having to search for information to information searching for you. It’s like having a personal robot who thinks just like you do reach across the Web and return the best music, stories, videos, even daily deals everywhere you go. “Welcome back to ESPN, Amit. The surf report in Venice tomorrow is 3-4 feet, and the Lakers are leading by 10 points at the half.”

All of this paints just a small picture of what’s to come. Imagine the applications in fields like education, health care, or personal finance (wouldn’t you love a robot that does your taxes?). As the Internet starts to work for us, it will enrich our lives in ways we can’t even imagine. I, for one, am very excited that my childhood dream of owning my own robot is finally coming true.

Amit Kapur is the CEO and co-founder of Gravity, a company that makes the Internet adaptive and personalized. He was formerly the COO of Myspace. As an early Myspace employee, he led the development and growth of Myspace Music and Myspace Mobile.

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