An innovation specialist, futurist and senior lecturer in future media at Birmingham City University, Mark Brill has been discussing, debating and theorizing on the impact of technology for decades and has been focusing on the future of mobile for 15 years.
“When I first started studying mobile technology 15 years ago, it was always seen as an add-on,” he told the audience at his EmpowerCX 2019 Europe expert session, Future Innovation. “But now it is the core computing device. Smartphones are the sun and everything else orbits around them.”
From being an add-on to being the center of our universe
To prove his point he asked attendees to play a game and stand up if they were guilty of certain smartphone habits, such as keeping it next to or in the bed, using it as the alarm clock or checking it last thing at night or first thing in the morning. And, in each instance, the entire room stayed on its feet. Then he said: “Stay standing if you share your device or let other people read your messages.” At which point everyone sat down again.
“This is the point,” he said. “Our device is a personal, unshared thing that we have with us all of the time. Where the mobile phone has brought us to, is the point where many of us are addicted to our devices.”
Looking to the past to understand the future
And recognizing this mobile dependency is key to attempting to understand where technology is set to take us next and what the future of mobile will be. “To go into the future we need to go back in time and look at the history of the future. It’s important to know this when we think about where the future is, we can only understand it in terms of the technology of today,” explained Brill. “The other thing to remember is that we see the future in terms of our hopes, fears and desires.”
At the turn of the 20th century as the world was experiencing the full effect of the industrial revolution, people imagined postmen on mechanical flying bicycles delivering letters to apartment block windows. In the 1950s, overwhelming optimism and the dawning of the jet led to renderings of domed cities and flying cars. But today, in an age of information overload, of AI and deep fakes and increasing political and economic uncertainty, the path we imagine technology taking is darker. These hopes and fears mean we’re concerned about computers becoming smarter than the average person and robots taking over the world.
A fear of AI and robots
For example, the autonomous car is well on its way to becoming a reality, yet thanks to this fear of an even more digital future, a majority of people are uncomfortable with the idea of trusting a vehicle to drive itself. Even though, when considered logically, it’s the optimum way of making the world’s roads safer.
“Over 2 million people are killed in road accidents every year,” Brill pointed out. “This technology could cut that number to maybe a couple of hundred.”
Yet, that doesn’t necessarily mean the robots and algorithms are going to take over. When Brill asked the audience: “Who would be happy having their hair cut by a robot?” the answer was no one.
“What is it about hairdressing and the hairdressing experience? It’s a very human experience. And that’s the point; whether robots can do this or not, sometimes we don’t want them to,” he continued. “There are a lot of things we do that are very human experiences. Customer experience (CX) has become a very technology-driven sector but when it comes down to it, there is a fundamental human connection; there’s a conversion that can only be human because of the emotion behind it.”
To enhance, not replace
In other words, we have the power to guide where technology is going and use it to enhance our capabilities. In the realm of CX we can already see this with the growing popularity of chatbots. As breakthroughs in Natural Language Processing (NLP) continue they are getting more and more accurate, but only within their specific context – helping people to help themselves on a limited number of topics.
However, Brill is less convinced that smart speaker systems like Amazon’s Alexa will have a place in the future, even if one in four U.S. homes already have one.
“What I find most interesting is that Alexa is kind of training us to interact with machines – train us to talk to machines in a way that we haven’t done before,” he said, before adding, “I see them as a temporary technology. Think about the PDA and the Palm Pilot. That was a temporary technology waiting until the phone came along. I’m convinced that smart speakers will be around for a few years until the technology catches up on phones and then we’ll probably use virtual assistants directly through our phones and won’t need the speaker systems.”
No one predicted the selfie
Still, even the sharpest minds and the best analysts will agree that technology has unintended and unpredictable consequences.
“We know what technology is supposed to do. I can give you predictions about where things are going; but how people use it – no one thought that the selfie would be the result of giving everyone a personal digital device with a camera inside it,” Brill pointed out. “No one thought that every three minutes we would take more pictures than in the whole of the 19th century. Or that 50% of all internet traffic would be cat-based content.”
Likewise, until the launch of the iPhone 4 in 2010, which had the same processing capabilities as a 1980s supercomputer, very few believed that the smartphone would become the epicenter of our digital lives. And that’s why, when forecasting what the future holds, it’s impossible to overstate the connection we already have with our smartphones, meaning the question we need to ask, according to Brill, is what comes after mobile?
“I’m convinced none of the new devices, whether it’s VR or Alexa or whatever will replace mobile,” states Brill.
One growing train of thought is that we will progress to having digital implants and become cyborgs.
“They believe nothing will replace the mobile until the mobile becomes a part of us,” explained Brill. “But the fact is, the mobile is already part of us.”
The future of mobile is mobile.