The age of the tech-enhanced human / by Scott A.

2017 will see the rise of assistance, augmentation and automation. It will bring in a big shift impacting economies

January 10, 2017:  

Typically, the action at the Consumer Electronics Show at Las Vegas is all about futuristic consumer durable products — smart television sets, voice-controlled fridges, and so on.

This year, however, the scene stealers at the CES were digital assistants powered by artificial intelligence.

Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana were joined by Baidu’s Little Fish, LG’s Hub Robot and Mattel’s Aristotle among a host of other virtual Jeeves creating a deafening buzz.

Amazon which had been powering ahead all through 2016 with its insanely skilled virtual assistant Alexa reportedly closed last year with 45,000 robots in its fulfilment centres. That was a 50 per cent increase in its robot headcount over a year before, signalling the rapid pace at which automation is moving at the e-commerce giant.

Meanwhile IBM Watson’s augmented intelligence has been quietly making inroads into hospitals and financial firms helping doctors and bankers make sense of data to arrive at diagnoses and spot opportunities and risks.

These developments clearly foretell a significant shift in 2017, a year we predict will be the coming of age of the tech-enhanced human. It’s usually very difficult to predict a profound new trend in a one-year time frame.

But this promises to be a fundamental shift with long-term implications for organisations, individuals and economies.

Tech enhancement should be seen through a framework of three ‘A’s — assistance, augmentation and automation — forces that have been quietly gaining momentum over the last couple of years and which we expect to go mainstream this year.

The three ‘A’s

From the basic PDAs of yore to the sophisticated virtual assistants of today, automated software applications or platforms that assist human users with search and retrieval related intelligence are getting better. And as their capabilities get enhanced, usage will spike. Research organisation Tractica forecasts that there will be 1.8 billion consumer users of virtual assistants worldwide by 2021 and 843 million enterprise users.

But if you look at Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, China’s LingLong Ding Dong, they work alongside our core capabilities — they complement our own skills easing our tasks quietly.

Augmentation, on the other hand, enhances our core capabilities by providing specifically contextual support that is required to do a task. The way doctors are working with IBM Watson is a great example of augmentation. IBM Watson with its deep cognitive computing skills assimilates vast amounts of patient information and interprets them reducing time for doctors to make their diagnoses.

Similarly, DAQRI's Smart Helmet can recognise machine parts, read gauges, and could change the way workers process information and get work done. Mitsubishi Electric is using smart glasses to provide air-conditioner service technicians with a three-dimensional overlay that shows them the components of the company’s most popular residential air conditioner.

The third A — automation — takes it all a step further, removing the need for human effort. Automation is not complementary to human skills but is a substitute bringing in agility to tasks, a pre-requisite in today’s world. But automation need not necessarily always mean job losses, especially in areas where significant judgement calls are needed. A classic example is self-driving cars.