• Technology that doesn’t fit doesn’t work
  • Can we make AI fit into our reality?
  • The challenges AI faces to succeed

My grandfather passed away a few months ago. One of our last interactions was a rather memorable moment. It has since become a sort of metaphor for our society’s ability to adopt technological leaps. Or should I say “inability”? Either way, I screen the potential of any new technology using the test I learned that day…

Because his hands and eyes were failing him, I decided to try and teach Grandpops how to use Siri – the young lady inhabiting his phone. The idea was that he could just tell Siri what to do rather than having to push all the buttons himself. All he’d have to do is say, “Call Nick Hubble,” and it would dial my number, for example.

But things didn’t go according to plan when I tried to show him how to do it. I pushed the button to activate Siri and confidently declared, “Call Nick Hubble.” But nothing happened.

I checked I was pressing the right button on the right side of the phone and tried again: “Call Nick Hubble!”

Siri didn’t even say her usual, “I’m sorry, could you repeat that?” Just a deafening silence.

I was about to try an American accent when I realised Grandpops and his wife were looking suspiciously amused by my strife. They burst out laughing once they knew the game was up.

Apparently, all the other grandchildren had been coming over for visits and doing the same thing – yelling into their grandparents’ phones in the hopes of waking up Siri.

Watching us struggle with modern technology had become somewhat of a hobby for them. Revenge, they called it. I have no idea for what, but I did play video games with Grandpops for a few years…

In the end we decided their phones were too old to have Siri installed and everyone gave up on trying to keep the grandparents active on their smartphones. They never discovered the joys of having Siri misunderstand you and call the wrong number. Given my grandfather’s cockney accent, it would’ve been very excitin’.

But it was a real lesson in the way technology gets adapted into society. It doesn’t really matter how good that technology is if it doesn’t plug into the world as it is today, not just as it should be in the future. Sure, Siri can help old people a lot. But they’d have to buy a new phone. And that presents more challenges than Siri solves.

Yes, going cashless seems like a good idea in theory. Until you actually think about the real world as it functions today. It would be a debacle. And those who advocate for it are being inconsiderate and heartless.

The same goes for bank branch closures. It’s downright dangerous.

There seems to be a yawning gap between a lot of groundbreaking technology and making it function in real life. Apparently, one of the key challenges for driverless cars is all the cars being driven by unpredictable real people. But that’s, quite frankly, a rather big problem. Is a driverless car that can’t handle people driving around it much of a revelation at all? Does it have a chance to succeed?

I’ve read that drone delivery technology is being hampered by dogs trying to defend their domain from airborne attacks. But nobody is going to give up their dogs for drone deliveries, are they? And so billion-dollar companies can’t seem to solve the problem. One of man’s newest and greatest technologies foiled by one of our oldest best friends…

I don’t have mobile phone coverage at home, despite living in a built-up area. Every time I get a phone call, I have to run out into the street. It’s humiliating and means I can’t spend hours on the phone waiting for banks and government department call centres unless I give up on doing anything else productive at the time.

It’s all a bit pathetic, really. No matter how good things sound in corporate presentations, technological revolutions that require society to function to suit the new technology are just an idea.

It’s just quite rare for a technology to come along that is both revolutionary and which actually slots into our lives in a way that functions given the state of the real world. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your puzzle piece is if it doesn’t fit into the rest of the puzzle as it stands. Nobody wants to start a new puzzle because one piece looks so good.

If we were to judge new tech based on how well it fits into our life, not just how awesome it is, our assessment of which technology will change the world would look rather different. Not that scientific magazines are going to cover mundane problems like those who don’t have access to digital banking. It’s all blockchains and ledgers for them.

It is fair enough to say that some technologies are solutions in search of a problem that will eventually be found. We shouldn’t abandon tech just because it isn’t ripe yet. Who would’ve thought that games would be a crucial use of computers 80 years ago? It’s worth more than US$200 billion this year.

My point is that a technology’s abilities and features are not enough to judge its merits.

With all this in mind, how does it apply to the latest technological revolution that will supposedly take over our lives?

Can AI crack reality?

Will artificial intelligence (AI) be like the internet and become ubiquitous within a decade, or will it be like the driverless cars and drone delivery which we are always on the cusp of existence, but never actually appear?

The stockmarket is quite certain AI will dominate our economy. It’s the only sector of the market really booming. But let’s just say that the stockmarket doesn’t have the best track record when it comes to separating the tech sector’s wheat from the chaff. It only takes a few believers and virtue signallers to bid up prices. And those gains can evaporate a lot faster than they were inflated.

Plenty of people are already using AI in their day-to-day lives. And a long list of AI apps are popping up to make life easier. It’s like having a dodgy research assistant living in your computer. The challenge seems to be asking it the right questions.

AI has also revolutionised the work of those involved in images and text creation. It is already here and functioning, in that sense.

What are the remaining challenges in AI’s path to changing the world?

One is energy use, which we looked into on Monday. We’re not exactly on track to be able to power widespread use of AI.

Another is the usual inertia which all new technology faces. It must give people enough of an edge to entice force others to use it in order to keep up with those who do.

But the biggest challenge is figuring out in which sectors AI will gain a foothold first. Where will it be viable early on to begin changing our world? That’s what my old friend Sam Volkering has figured out in his report on the topic. Depending on what time you read this, you may be able to gain access now.

Until next time,

Nick Hubble
Editor, Fortune & Freedom