From iPhone to iBrain: Ben Goertzel Chats with (Humanity+ Director and Mobile App Designer) Amy Li about the Transhuman Future

The 80s brought us the personal computer, the 90s brought us the Internet and the ubiquitous mobile phone.  Following up these wonders, one of the breakthroughs of the 00’s has been the smartphone.  Bringing the mobile phone and the Net together yields something more than the sum of its parts – for many users the smartphone is almost an extension of the mind and body, an extra organ dealing with computing and connecting in a manner that feels almost indispensable.

To probe the present and future of this phenomenon more deeply, I decided to interview Amy Li, who will be speaking on smartphones and the future of humanity at the Humanity+ @ CalTech conference this weekend, Dec 4-5.

Amy is a multidisciplinary creative director and designer, specializing in branding, creative marketing strategy, and user experience design for global brands such as Yahoo, AT&T, VW, Sony etc.  But she also has an intense interest in the broader implications of future technology, which is why in early 2010 Amy joined the Board of Directors of Humanity+ (the organization that brings you this fine magazine!).   She’s currently serving as the Treasurer of the organization, but her primary focus in her Humanity+ work is on “helping members of the scientific and futurist community become better communicators, one interface and one typography at a time,” and helping explore the practical implications of various futuristic technologies.

One of the highlights of Amy’s work on mobile tech was her iPhone app Have2P.  Yes, that means exactly what you think it does – it’s a free geo-aware app that helps you find the nearest bathroom when you’re out and about.  Have2P is part of the have2series of research apps (have2eat, have2drink, have2snack), which utilize crowdsourcing for local business data collection and cleaning, and in addition do vertical and user behavior studies.   Due to its originality, quirky graphic and branding, and incredibly usefulness, Have2P was showcased as “App of the Week” in the New York Times, and also featured in Gizmodo.

BG:
Your talk at the Humanity+ @ CalTech conference is titled “How Mobile Technology is Transforming the World.”   So, what’s your particular take on this?  In a few sentences, how IS mobile technology transforming the world?

AL:
Mobile technology has brought people around the world closer, and helped them keep in touch. But what’s really exciting and truly transforming the world and human life is what smartphones can do, which is what my talk focused on. With capability of geolocation, the mobile web, and various applications available in the app store, mobile is no longer just a device for phone call and texting, it is a tool we can utilize in pretty much every aspect of daily life. My talk will explore various aspects of this – how smartphones enable the blending of space, time and presence and the creation of augmented reality; how they transform social interactions and human relationships; how they transform the shopping experience, and how they can make us smarter and happier.

BG:
I agree, smartphones can already do a lot, and they have incredible potential to do a lot more.  But right now they’re restricted to a fairly small segment of the population, right?   Where do you see smartphone technology being in 20 or 30 years?  How about 50 years?  How prevalent will it be?  How radically will it change the individual and society?   How far will it go?

AL:
I think in 20/30 years, the smartphone will replace the normal cellphone in most parts of the world.  People will access the web from their phone a lot more than from the PC; and there will be various kinds of new devices coming out trying to make the mobile web experience more user friendly.   The optimization of websites for the mobile web will become a common practice, and mobile will become a part of the user’s multifunctional life tool rather than just a phone.   A lot of this is happening already, but it will get more thorough and more pervasive – maybe faster than anyone thinks.

About 50 years – well, that’s a long time, given the accelerating pace of technological change!  In 50 years – maybe significantly less — I think we will see more AI explored in mobile, maybe a smart personal assistant that’s constantly with you, maybe replacing pets in many people’s life.

BG:
One of the things I find fascinating about you is your multicultural background – you were born and raised in China, you relocated to the US a little over a decade ago, and you recently returned to China for a month for the first time since you immigrated to America.  Given your international background, I’m curious how you see the impact of mobile technology hitting China and the US differently.  I’ve traveled and worked in China myself, and I’ve been struck — there as in other Third World countries — by seeing how people who really have very little money and very few material possessions, still have mobile phones.  And smartphones are surprisingly popular too, at least among professionals and even some students.

AL:
Before the iPhone came out, Europe and Asia were leading the trend in mobile. Mobile is definitely a huge part of people’s life, in China maybe even more than in the US.

These days, many web technologies in China are very similar to the US, maybe in a earlier stage.  However, in mobile, smartphones are not as common as in the US just yet.  Also, to fully exploit what smart phone can do,  would require some improvement in the infrastructure –,for example, an accurate set of local business data would be needed to truly utilize geolocation, etc. But Chinese people are learning very fast, and everything is growing at an incredibly rapid speed.  So I would not be surprised if within a year or two, mobile becomes more advanced there than here. On my recent visit, many people tried to persuade me to go back there, since everything grows at such a fast speed there these days, there’s definitely a lot more growth opportunity there, especially for people working in the technology field and with an entrepreneurial mindset.

BG:
OK, now let’s turn to the hypothetical future of smartphone technology.  As you know my own main research area is artificial intelligence.  I wonder how you see AI and mobile technology intersecting as the future unfolds?  You already mentioned that you think the smartphone might eventually become a kind of smart agent that adapts to its owner and acts like a kind of personal assistant?  Or maybe even a pet or a digital best friend?  Any more detailed comments on all this?

AL:

Yes, I’m very excited about getting more AI into smartphone – i.e. making them actually be smart in more different senses!

I’ve worked on voice recognition technology before – in that work, we used free local search mobile apps to gather voice samples to help improve the voice recognition technology.  To recognize natural human voices is a very complicated thing, especially when there is accent involved sometimes. We spent a lot of time working on the grammar and the algorithms.

BG:
Right.  Current voice recognition has some pretty severe limitations, because the software doesn’t understand the meaning of what it hears; and sometimes to figure out what words are being said, you have to have a guess at what meaning the words are trying to convey.  I heard from a fairly reliable source that Nuance – the leading speech to text software – has about 90% accuracy for people speaking clearly in fairly noise-free conditions, but under 40% accuracy for people talking in real-world accents over the phone.  So clearly the tech has a long way to go.  Maybe “narrow AI” techniques can solve the problem but I have a suspicion it may take something closer to artificial general intelligence – time will tell.

AL:
Well, in our work, we focused quite a lot of time working on the grammars, and coming up with different scenarios of natural grammar that people use when they try to search for something, and what we found is that the more descriptors people add to their questions, the more accurately the machine can recognize their speech.  For example, if I search “Cheesecake factory” versus “cheesecake factory in Pasadena, California”, the latter has much higher accuracy. I think with more AI or AGI development, more natural conversation will definitely become possible – along with better speech to text  and text to speech, a digital personal assistant is definitely coming, and I’m very excited about that.

BG:

Yes, definitely.   One of the things my colleagues and I are working on in our OpenCog project is intelligent natural language dialogue.  Speaking of China – we have a project funded in Hong Kong (at Gino Yu’s M-Lab), with 6 programmers working on making an AI-powered video game character that can hold a conversation with you.  But the same thing we can do with a video game character, we can do with a smartphone.

AL:

Yeah, that will be really cool. What if we turn this smartphone into a video game character in itself?  I’m actually most curious about the emotional aspect of it. How a human will ultimately interact with this digital friend.  Can they replace our pets? Will people grow romantic feeling and attachment to their digital friend — when it may not only smart, witty and charming, but can also project a beautiful human body hologram….  There have been talks and discussions about having sexual relationships with robots.  And there have also been some designs for robots powered by smartphones.  And there is the potential for smartphone to directly read your physiological and psychological condition right out of your body, using brain waves and implants and so forth.  And this may enable them to truly become your “soulmate”! So no more online dating and soul searching for everyone, Ha, I think this is almost a bit scary, but also very exciting!

BG:
A lot of exciting possibilities for sure!  Speaking of which — what do you think about the meme of the “global brain” — of internet and mobile technology (maybe combined with other advanced tech like brain-computer interfacing or AI) weaving people and computers together into a sort of globally-distributed mental superorganism?   This could get especially weird once we have brain-computer implants, right?  The iBrain connector, that lets you plug the iPhone right into your cortex to enable faster querying and immediate response!

Relatedly, I’ve done some technical work suggesting that networking different AIs together has a lot of potential to enhance their intelligence, so they can all learn from each other.  I’ve often thought this is how AIs will finally really learn human language – millions of personal assistants on smartphones, each one learning a little human language from talking to its owner, and all of them sharing their knowledge with each other behind the scenes, helping each other get smarter and smarter.

And on the human side, we’re getting more and more dependent on smartphones even now – how dependent will we be on our phone once it’s a portal into an intelligent distributed network of continually learning and interacting digital brains?  How individual will our intelligence be anymore?  And how human?

AL:
Haha, I think it is definitely a bit scary to think about how once these machines are capable of learning from each other, they may get smarter and smarter, and eventually smarter than their owners, and we will lose control of them.

But, the positive possibilities are extremely exciting.  I think part of the excitement about rapid growth in various technologies has to do with how these technologies will merge and interact with each other. I think we are in an era where a lot of disciplines have been crossed — science and art, biotech and robotics, biology and chemistry, web and mobile, statistics and linguistics, brain computer interfaces and AI, etc. — the possibilities are endless.  Compared to 10 years ago, a lot of things are no longer talks and philosophical theories, instead, they’re possibilities and facts.   So is a global brain of some sort a possibility?  Of course it is.  But it’s hard to foresee the details, especially once advanced AI gets into the picture.

BG:
It certainly is hard to foresee the details.  And I have to say I don’t feel any less individual now than I did 25 years ago, even though now I’m constantly in contact with others and with the global pool of knowledge via my laptop and my smartphone.  These technologies have changed my pattern of interacting and communicating and thinking, but they haven’t eroded my distinctive and unique personality or intellect.   We have to remember that the individual mind is a kind of psychological and social construct anyway – so maybe it can keep on constructing itself and maintaining its individuality even when it’s embedded in this vast fast-moving network of communication and intelligence.

Also, this makes me wonder if maybe one reason that mobile technology is so popular in Asia may be the way that it empowers the individual, in a society where the individual doesn’t have that much power in their ordinary non-electronic life.

AL:
Hmmm, I disagree.  Electronic toys are quite popular in Asia; and I think there may be a cultural difference actually, in that mobile for a long while in Asia has been more like a personal toy.   There are many different accessories involved with mobile — people treat their phones like their little pets, they dress them up, and hang all kinds of stuff on them.  So there is a deep root of mobile culture there, where sometimes a good cell phone is becoming a status symbol. Like some of the phones there are popular not because of their multifunction, but because they are from a particular name brand, or have gold trims or something. However, I think that is gonna change now with the smartphone getting more and more popular there.

BG:
I certainly don’t disagree with that.  There are a lot of different factors involved.

AL:
Anyway these technologies are unfolding very rapidly and we’re soon going to see exactly how they transform the world.  And we’ll get to talk about this more this weekend at the conference at CalTech.

BG:
That’s right.  And some of the people who can’t make it to CalTech for the conference, will probably be watching the streaming video on their smartphones!

AL:

Yes, and that will become more and more common.

BG:

And eventually the smartphone can watch the conference itself, and summarize the highlights for its busy owner — and point the owner to those talks that are so great and so relevant he really has to watch them for himself!

AL;
Ha, I like that idea! And I’m looking forward to that!!

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