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TECHNOLOGY

Apple, Google and Amazon Already Play Huge Roles in Our Lives. Here’s Why They’re About to Get Even Bigger

A futurist on the crazy–and sometimes disturbing–places artificial intelligence might go.

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BY Kevin J. Ryan - 09 May 2018

PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

You have lots of choices when it comes to the products in your life. Coffee or tea? Nike or Adidas? Apple or Samsung?

Futurist (and Inc. magazine columnist) Amy Webb says the stakes of those decisions will soon be a lot higher. Speaking at the Wall Street Journal Future of Everything Festival Tuesday, Webb talked about the larger role artificial intelligence will play in our everyday lives in the not-too-distant future.

"You won't be deciding between systems like iOS or Android for your phone," she said. "You'll be deciding: Do you want your life operating system to be Amazon or Google? If you think it's hard choosing a smartphone, just wait."

Webb, founder of the research firm Future Today Institute, thinks a future in which smartphones are obsolete is only a decade away. Instead of carrying around phones or tablets, we'll be surrounded by smart devices--and we won't need to look at a screen. "Fifty percent of our interactions with machines will be by voice," she said. Assistants like Alexa or Google Home will run our everyday lives via voice chat. "This will shift our expectations and also create new divides," Webb added, since that kind of technology won't be accessible for everyone.

Webb also has concerns about the way governments will use artificial intelligence as it continues to advance. China recently rolled out a secretive social credit rating system, which is basically an Uber rating that applies to nearly every aspect of everyday life. Citizens whose scores get too low can be restricted in everything from their abilities to use the internet, travel on public roads, or send their children to certain schools.

China already is known to monitor and regulate its citizens' activity online. As Wired points out, it's not hard to imagine that speaking bad about the government online would lower a person's score. A.I. that crawls social media would make this process even more efficient--if it isn't already being deployed. Relatedly, Webb suggested that street cameras with facial recognition could dock jaywalkers, meaning even the most minor infractions would be automatically catalogued and could have long-term effects.

Disturbingly, private Chinese companies including Alibaba affiliate Sesame Credit are helping the government's efforts by collecting data on citizens and generating algorithms that produce their individual scores. "Sometimes," Webb said, "profit goals and what's best for the future of humanity don't align." As such, she asserted that tech companies in the U.S.--specifically the "big six" of Google, Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Apple and Facebook--have the massive responsibilities to create A.I. that's controlled, inclusive, and used for good.

All this, of course, is much easier said than done. It will likely also require a proactive government, which Webb doesn't see currently. "The Trump administration likes to pretend A.I. doesn't exist," she said, which doesn't bode well for the country's future. She suggested that not only will the U.S. fall far behind China in developing its technology, but that ignoring the issue in the present will lead to an ugly regulatory process down the line. Several years from now, she said, lawmakers will eventually cave to mounting public pressure and try to play catchup, thus enacting an onslaught of regulations that saddle A.I. companies.

Coincidentally, Webb's comments came on the same day that the Washington Post reported the White House will be hosting an A.I. summit later this week. According to the report, the administration will meet with academics and executives from 38 companies including Amazon, Google, and Facebook about advancing the technology and funding pertinent research.

"Now would be a good time," Webb said Tuesday, "to have the right people in the room having the right conversations."

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