Death of the Smartphone?

The smartphone has possibly been the most transformative technology of the past hundred years. It’s unleashed the power of the computer in a portable always-with-us way that has changed the way that most of us interface with the world. But as unlikely as it might seem, it also might be one of the shortest-lived major technologies in history.

When looking forward it seems inevitable that smartphones will largely be replaced by voicebot technology. Voicebots are already intertwining into our lives in major ways. Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Echo and Google Assistant are already replacing a lot of other technologies.

Voicebots have already entered my life in several key ways. As a music lover I’ve gone through every technology upgrade since vinyl. I had a huge CD collection and burned tons of custom CDs of my favorite songs. I used an iPod heavily for a few years. I downloaded music and built custom playlists of my music. And I used streaming radio services. But this has all now been replaced by my Amazon Echo. It’s integrated into Amazon music, Sirius XM Radio, and Pandora, and I can just ask aloud to hear the music I want.

I also now use voicebots for simple web searches and I no longer have to use my phone or PC to find out when a local store or restaurant is open. I use my Echo to take notes to remember later, something that is important to me since I wake with ideas at 2:00 in the morning!  In the past I would scramble for something to write on, which inevitably woke me up – but no longer.

Voicebots are also supplanting a lot of apps I used to use. It’s a lot easier to just ask about the weather rather than look it up. I can ask for sports scores before my feet hit the floor out of bed. Voicebots are starting to displace other smartphone functions. I can now make and receive texts by voice – this isn’t quite fully integrated into Echo, but I expect it soon will be. Voicebots integrated into the car give us driving directions and can lead us to the nearest gas station, all directed by voice.

Voicebots are growing steadily better at voice recognition. I’ve had the Amazon Echo for about 18 months and it gets a little better month by month. Voicebots are also getting better at responding to requests. All of the major voicebots are using primitive artificial intelligence to learn from their mistakes and to get better at responding to user requests. Questions that puzzled my Echo months ago are now sailing through.

Some voicebot functions are still nearly unusable. I have Microsoft’s Cortana on my PC and it’s not really helpful in the way I would like to use it. Ideally it could replace most of my keyboard functions. But it’s not hard to forecast that within a few years that voice commands will finally make it easier to use a PC.

If voicebots are going to grow to the next level it’s going to take improvements in AI. But everything is pointing in that direction. Just a few weeks ago a new AI from Google learned the game of Go from scratch in just three days with nothing more than being given the rules of the game. The new AI won 100 games straight against the older Google AI that beat the best human player earlier this year.

As AI gets better the voicebots are going to get better. There will come a time soon where it’s easier to use a voicebot for most of the apps on a smartphone, and that’s when voicebots will start to eat away at smartphone penetration rates.

I for one would love to ditch my smartphone. Even after all of these years I’ve never been comfortable having to remember to carry it and I walk away and leave it all of the time. And somehow we’ve gotten roped into spending $600 or more every two years for a new device. I would be much happier wearing tiny earbuds that let me talk to a voicebot that has been able to learn my habits.

Most of the developers in the AI world think that voicebots will enable real digital assistants that step in many times a day to make our lives easier. This trend seems inevitable and one has to wonder how the emergence of voicebots will affect the huge push for 5G wireless? Most of the things that voicebots do for us are low bandwidth and could easily be done using a fully implemented LTE network. It’s hard to picture where this all might lead, but one thing seems certain – the death of the smartphone will probably be just as disruptive as its birth.

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