SXSW is a great place to be exposed to new ideas, but perhaps even more valuable are the sessions where you reconsider ideas you’ve grown accustomed to, and seeing them from a brand new perspective.
One session in particular this year that has resonated with me for the week and a half since leaving Austin was entitled “A Robot in Your Pocket” with Amit Kapur, formerly of MySpace, and currently the CEO of Gravity, and Jeff Bonforte, the CEO of Xobni.
In their session they discussed the advancements of Artificial Intelligence in our quest as humans to create digital personal assistants, or in otherwords, technical entities which can work on our behalf.
At the heart of the matter is the idea that we should be able to leverage digital tools to improve our lives, in either small but noticeable ways, or in innovative and revolutionary ways. Kapur and Bonforte made a very clever distinction in the kind of data sites and devices are collecting to try and improve our lives, AKA our experiences, and they defined a split in data collection into two main categories: explicit and implicit.
Explicit data is the settings that we manually set, or the customizations that we explicitly make to change an experience for the better. I remember the original customizable homepage on the web, which Yahoo introduced with My Yahoo in the mid-to-late 90s. It was a lot of work to set up, but once you did the experience was definitely improved.
Implicit data is the data that is collected without our having to put any effort into triggering or managing the experience manually. It’s a “robot” working in the background, to collect user data, and then offer changes to the experience based on conclusions made from the data itself.
As is so often the case, the speakers used an iPhone in their example. Explicitly we (currently) customize the iPhone with our email login, calendar events, and contact information. We also manually login to sites, or we change the background either by selecting from a default list of files, or uploading our own. These are all explicit acts that change things for the better.
However, the power is much more in the implicit side of the split. The iPhone 4 comes with five on-board sensors to track and collect data behind the scenes, making adjustments without us having to do anything. The iPhone has a proximity sensor that knows when the phone is on our ear, and it pro-actively disables the buttons on the screens so we don’t interrupt our call. The iPhone also comes with an ambient light sensor, so the screen brightness can adjust depending on the level of lighting in an environment. So we can clearly see how, without really even realizing it, “robots” are hard at work improving our lives without any extra effort on our part.
In the brave new world of our future, implicit data collection should evolve to be even more predictive, or as they the speakers were concluding, pro-actively making all of our experiences suit our unique requirements. And that’s all good for those of us who expect technology to improve, rather than distract us from, our lives.
Explicit data allows us to work less, and it incrementally improves our lives by saving time and effort. In the future, implicit data should be able to skip the work of entering our preferences and pro-actively work on our behalf.
I, for one, welcome our implicit robot sensor overlords.