March 28, 2017
With all due respect, Star Trek got the future wrong in this one important respect.
Like millions of others, I have a fond spot in my aural memory for the voice of Patrick Stewart. With his enviably erudite accent, Stewart played Captain Jean-Luc Picard of the USS Enterprise D, and in the process resurrected the Star Trek franchise from the campy overdrama of William Shatner's Captain James T. Kirk. Among the many things Stewart's voice intoned with such high confidence, one that is instantly recognizable to fans like me is: "Computer, tea, Early Grey, hot."
In the fantasy world of the Starship Enterprise, the computer was an omnipresence, an intelligence that could interact with you verbally but also directed visual information to touchscreens nearby when needed. The computer could also control lighting, ship systems, and — as so lovingly demonstrated in the above clip — food replicators. Sounds a lot like Amazon's Alexa, doesn't it? Star Trek is famously credited with previsioning a lot of technology we have today, from PDAs, mobile phones and, hopefully soon, tricorders. You can, in fact, assign your Amazon Echo to respond to the command "computer" instead of Alexa, should you wish.
But this simple sentence, "Computer, tea, Early Grey, hot," as right a description of the future as it is, also got the future completely wrong. Setting aside the question of whether we'll ever have food replicators, if we examine what the phrase suggests about human-computer interaction in the future, we can see pretty quickly why Star Trek got this one wrong. Because in the future:
- You won't know the word computer. By the 24th century, the time in which Star Trek: The Next Generation takes place, if people still use the word computer, something will be terribly wrong. That term will have disappeared just the way "dialing" a phone or playing a "DVD" will have. Your intelligent agent will have a personality, probably several of them, akin to a Greek chorus that follows you around. And you will interact with it/them as you would any other intelligent person, by name.
- You will rarely call your agent by name. Your agent will have a name, true, but you'll rarely use it, just like we rarely use the names of the people around us. Very soon our agents won't wait to be asked what to do, they'll anticipate what you need and do it for you, like a true assistant, sometimes asking for your verbal approval, sometimes not, depending on your prior preferences and permissions granted over time. You'll be more likely to use their name when thanking them for something they did rather than asking them to do it.
- You won't need to specify your needs in detail. Why in the world did the computer not know that Picard was going to want tea, particularly Earl Grey, and that he liked it hot? The millions of us watching knew it, why did the computer not catch on?
If we rewrite the script true to the intelligent agents of the year 2025 (we don't need to wait until 2325), it would go something like this:
Captain Picard walks from the bridge to his ready room, his brow furrowed.
COMPUTER (to self, inaudibly): Jean-Luc sure seems concerned, and given what just happened with the Klingons on the bridge, I can see why. Judging by his heart rate and his pacing back and forth, he is trying to calm down, center himself, and prepare to make a difficult decision. I wish I could help. Wait, I know just the thing.
Food replicator lights up, makes swirly light effect and accompanying sounds, cup of tea appears
COMPUTER (audibly): Captain Picard, A cup of tea, the usual.
PICARD: Thank you, Majel.
Cue: hailing sound
WESLEY CRUSHER enters
PICARD: Shut up, Wesley!
It would totally change the show to have the computer be a meaningful and valued member of the team rather than just a convenient verbal interface with encyclopedic knowledge. (Maybe the new Star Trek should incorporate that as a character.) Just as it will totally change your life to have your omnipresent intelligent agent follow you and guide you through the day. The question isn't if this will happen, it's when and how. I have some prior thoughts on what form factors such agents can take, with my bet riding on smart pets.
James McQuivey, Ph.D., is a vice president and principal analyst at Forrester. In his career he successfully predicted the commercialization of the Internet, the rise of online retail, and the arrival of Amazon Echo. He is also the author of Digital Disruption.