future_medialab: VA

What Can I Help You With?

We stand on the brink of the third wave of computing, where machines become capable of learning and self reflexively developing knowledge about the people and objects around them.

With the creation and circulation of so many data points defining our behaviours, interactions, activities, and locations, the next step in emerging technologies is a service that consolidates our experience. Think of it as a mash-up of the powerful natural language processing of IBM’s Watson, the voice-activated intelligent assistance of Apple’s Siri, the productivity augmentation of Google Now, and the biometrics and physiological quantifying of the self through wearable technologies.

Combine it all together and you have a Virtual Assistant, arriving sometime in the next five years everywhere and nowhere in your life. Moving beyond screens, social, and search the VA will be the new gateway to the Internet and all the people and things connected to it. For pop culture references see Her, HAL, KITT or J.A.R.V.I.S.

Project Virtual Assistant (VA) is a research collaboration between the Institute of Management Studies (IMS) at Goldsmiths, University of London and global media agency Mindshare. We seek to explore and understand the opportunities and challenges of bringing the virtual assistant of the future to life for users, regulators and service suppliers.

Researching the future in the present is never easy and requires innovation in both methods and methodology. We worked intensely with 12 consumers for six weeks running workshops and experiments in ethnographic service design with the latest technologies for face and emotional recognition, beacon technologies like those in the revamped Regent Street, wearables, hearables, trackables, and even scent. Testing the results we surveyed 1,000 nationally representative smart phone users. The practical output is a service design blueprint for a next generation VA but in many ways, for all of us, the outcome is a fundamental transformation in how we view the potential power and implications of consolidated digital technologies that are right around the corner. On a magnitude scale, if social media and big data are minor tremors, virtual assistants are great earthquakes of impending disruption to individuals, families, communities, and socioeconomic life.

VAs will not be divorced from the actual real-life experiences, actions, and choices of the people that use the service. If you are walking home on a street with a high level of assaults or robberies your VA will proactively alert you and propose an alternate route. If you are an alcoholic on the wagon your VA will alert your sponsor when you ingest a beer or enter a bar. Initially we will synch our mental and physical wellbeing with our VAs but just as or wired Web connections or smart phone cables are disappearing the progression of VA connectivity to wearables or hearables and then implants is inevitable.

In families your VA will automatically alert parents when their child connects with a suspect profile showing a 97% correlation with likely grooming or bullying behaviours on a social network. This is no different to how financial institutions trust their fraud algorithms to be faster, more reliable, and comprehensive than any humans in assessing real-time risk in credit card transactions. You may not want to offload your parenting responsibilities in protecting your children to your VA but you may be grossly irresponsible if you don’t.

Call it persuasive technology, moral enhancement, or algorithmic discretion but this is how VAs will swiftly integrate themselves into every facet of everyday life. You may get annoyed when your bank cancels your credit card automatically while you are abroad but is anyone willing to cut their credit cards off from automated fraud detection services? This will not feel invasive or manipulative just as the silently humming fraud algorithms only appear when you are in need. Like a soft warm blanket VAs will wrap themselves around humanity and our personal, community, crowd, economic, political, and environmental interactions. End users will be individuals though organisations, cities, communities, families, and even organised crime may link and integrate VAs for collective services. Any brand, particularly those engaging directly with consumers, needs to be thinking now about how they are going to fit into this next communication revolution. Our research suggests this trajectory is inevitable fueled by the perfect storm of the maturation and continued exponential growth of relevant digital technologies and humanity’s tremendous innovation in harnessing its potential powers.

Dr Chris Brauer is Director of Innovation in the Institute of Management Studies (IMS) at Goldsmiths, University of London.