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Why wearable computing is waiting for A.I.

A new app for Google Glass seems trivial, but it represents the future of wearable computing.
  • Mike Elgan (Computerworld (US))
  • 08 February, 2014 12:07

When we look at wearable computers -- smart glasses like Google Glass or smart watches like Pebble -- we tend to think of tiny mobile computers that are somehow attached to our bodies or clothing.

The core attributes, we believe, are miniaturization and convenience. A smart watch, for example, saves you the trouble of pulling a phone out of your pocket to check your notifications.

But these qualities are irrelevant in the face of the real revolution.

I'll say it as plainly as I can: Wearable computers will find out what you want to know, then make you know it.

Why glassware called 'Refresh' is the future of wearables

A company called Refresh this week introduced a new Google Glass "glassware" app called Refresh.

The app is similar to a Refresh tool for the iPhone that's known as Refresh App. Both are designed to present "dossiers" -- summaries of information -- about people.

One of its neat tricks is to check your calendar, see who you're meeting with, then brief you on selected facts about those people.

Because the Google Glass version of Refresh rests on your face, it does a simple version of what all wearables will do in the future -- it finds out what you want to know, then it makes sure you know it.

For example, wearable devices could help you learn more about people you meet -- filling you in about whether you've met them before or if you share common acquaintances, interests or histories.

It's a small thing. But imagine a future where anything you might want to know simply appears to you without any action or effort on your part. You could be eating in a restaurant, and Google Glass could, for example, tell you that it's the spot where your father proposed to your mother. Or that your friend will be late because of traffic, the salmon got bad reviews online, your parking meter will expire in 20 minutes, or the bathroom is through the bar and up the stairs to the right. Imagine that such knowledge could simply appear into your field of vision at the exact moment when you want to know it.

That's where wearable computing is going.

That's why the wearable revolution is mostly an artificial intelligence revolution. What's really interesting about wearable computing is the work that back-end servers do to figure out what you want to know and then acquire that knowledge. The delivering-it-to-your-brain part is relatively trivial.

Speaking of trivia

Remember Watson, the IBM supercomputer that beat champion Ken Jennings at Jeopardy?

Now Watson is performing a new trick: It can read your Twitter feed and extract all kinds of knowledge from it. It can tell if you're nearing some life event, such as having a child or getting married, and also how you feel about it -- even if you never explicitly mentioned any of this information.

The purpose of this technology, of course, is to sell things to people. Knowing what's going on with people would enable companies to target advertising very precisely. But such artificial intelligence services will become commonplace and will be used for other purposes.

Instead of figuring out what you want to know by checking your calendar, as Refresh does, the apps of the future will check your calendar, your social networks, your email, your phone calls -- and all of those sources for your friends and colleagues. They will monitor your history of actions and movements and much more. Then they will crunch the numbers and deliver the information you want to know.

A development that's especially relevant to Google Glass is Google's acquisition last month of a company called DeepMind, which makes artificial intelligence technology that's rapidly moving toward computers that think like a human.

To demonstrate what DeepMind is capable of doing, the company has famously turned the system loose on classic Atari arcade games. DeepMind learns how to play the games (and it does so by playing; it's not programmed to play them) and then it masters the games.

This technology could be used by Google to power a future version of Google Now, which would learn about your preferences and desires and curiosities by offering you information and watching what you do with it. Over time, it would learn exactly what kind of information you would like to know and when, then deliver it to your wearable device.

The power of artificial intelligence to figure out what you want to know (and when) is magnified when wearable computers deliver that information to you effortlessly.

With a PC, laptop, tablet or phone, you have to go looking for information -- or respond to an alert by taking some action. The wearable revolution will present information without effort. The information will simply appear, then disappear. The difference is trivialized as a matter of convenience. But wearable information is not about "easy." It's about "seamless." When you take no action to learn something, the information feels like knowledge you already possess -- even as you learn it.

Everyone talks about augmented reality. But it's not reality that's augmented. Reality is unaffected. It's really your mind that's augmented (with knowledge that replaces ignorance). Your experience is augmented. Your life is augmented.

That's why the wearable computing revolution is really a revolution in applying artificial intelligence and personal data to giving you information when you want it. The wearable computing part simply puts that information into your mind in the most direct way possible.