Siri And Rivals Prep Next Trick: Mind Reading

Move over KITT from Knight Rider, Apple and Google have smartphone companions that will offer helpful information before you ask. But the creepiness factor must be kept in check.
Think your smartphone's smart now? Sure, it can tap the resources of the internet to answer virtually anything you ask. But what if it could predict what information you needed? Better yet, what if your phone understood you well enough that it could offer up information you didn't even know you needed. Now that would be a smart phone! You'll have one someday--and sooner than you might think.

Consider this: There's arguably no single person, no one thing that spends more time with you than your smartphone. Hell, you're more apt to notice that you left your smartphone behind than your wallet! Because of all our time together, these devices have a unique opportunity to get to know us better--maybe even better than we know ourselves. Up to now, though, they haven't really tried.

Why not? A flood of personal information surges through our phones every day. They store our phone books and our calendars. They keep records of our phone calls, texts, and emails. They have access to our social networks. They can see which smartphone apps we use, and how we use them. They house a stable of radios and sensors that could offer perspective on our whereabouts, our movements, and other environmental data. And they have at their disposal the web, to make sense of it all.

Armed with all that data, our phones should be able to piece together our business and personal routines, and discern what it might mean when we're not following those routines. They should be able to deduce what we like and what we don't. And they should be able to glean some insight about our inter-personal relationships, and decode how those relationships impact our routines.

What our phones lack is contextual awareness, an ability to identify and filter the salient information from that data storm and present it to us, unprompted, at a time we'll find it useful. Give our smartphones a way to track all that data and a set of tools to analyze it and we'll be well on the way to realizing the dream of truly smart phones.

Oh, and our phones also will have to earn our trust so we allow them access to all our data. But let's come back to that later.

The dream of an electronic assistant has been around for decades, and Hollywood has been fleshing out the fantasy for nearly as long. There was the robot companion in Lost in Space, C3PO in Star Wars and KITT in Knight Rider, just to name a few.

Global CIO
Global CIOs: A Site Just For You
Visit InformationWeek's Global CIO -- our online community and information resource for CIOs operating in the global economy.

Late last year, Apple provided a new pretext for keeping the fantasy alive when it unveiled Siri. In reality, Siri wasn't much more than a collection of voice-based apps like a search engine and a dialer. But its natural-sounding female voice and its quirky database of answers to oddball questions supported the illusion that Siri had a gender and a personality.

Google's Answer To Siri

Google Now, Android's answer to Siri, is trickling out this summer on Android 4.1. It one-ups Siri by adding context-aware capabilities for a small set of use cases. For example, Google Now will automatically provide you with train schedules if it senses that you've entered a subway station.

In many ways, Google Now marks the beginning of the context-aware era. It's a modest beginning, especially in light of what's possible. But it is a beginning nonetheless.

A growing set of companies are fueling the transition, providing components and software development tools to enable software developers. And the developers are responding with a flood of context-aware apps that should begin rolling out over the coming quarters.

Like Google Now, the early apps will be pretty parochial, offering assistance from the perspective of their own little sandboxes. For example, a grocery store app might deduce from your purchase cadence that you're running low on fruit, but it adds a smaller-than-usual amount of fruit to your shopping list because you're scheduled to fly to Cleveland in a few days.

That example gives you an idea of just how many context-aware apps we'll have to download if we want to take advantage of the capability. Over time, though, the herd will thin down--ultimately to just one app that handles everything. In keeping with the grocery store example: an all-seeing app wouldn't add any fruit to your shopping list because it knows that you bought some yesterday at Kroger's--something the Safeway app couldn't possibly know.

All at once, you can see that an omniscient app would be far more helpful to you than a host of myopic apps that can't see over the walls of their cubicles. You also start to get a feel for just how much of your life that app could access.

Remember that trust issue I brought up earlier? Let's talk about it now.

Consumers generally don't have a problem handing over personal information if they know precisely what they're sharing, what the information will be used for, and what they get in return. That's why some people are suspicious of their smartphones, which--as we've been discussing--have a courtside seat to our lives.

There are ways to ease consumers' misgivings. In general, the more it appears that the smartphone is behaving in an advocacy role as opposed to an exploitive role, the better the relationship will be. One way to do that is to keep as much of the data and analysis as possible resident on the smartphone. Another way to do that is to avoid pushing coupons; instead, fetch coupons only after it's determined that the consumer needs the product in question.

Some of this may fly in the face of the way software developers maximize profits in the smartphone age. But they'll have to adapt, and leave some of the data-mining dollars behind. Because if they don't find a way to build trust with consumers, then context-aware technology won't ever get off the ground.

And that just wouldn't be smart now, would it?

Mobile employees' data and apps need protecting. Here are 10 ways to get the job done. Also in the new, all-digital 10 Steps To E-Commerce Security special issue of Dark Reading: Mobile technology is forcing businesses to rethink the fundamentals of how their networks work. (Free registration required.)