Pipe dream: a post-mobile app world

I was doing some research today on how subnet masks work for a project involving building a VPN, and one of the random internet articles I read referenced RFC 1918, which is basically a chapter in the Internet specification that talks about private IP addresses. I thought to myself, “What does RFC stand for?”. I then proceeded to open a new Chrome tab, type in the question, and click a few links to figure out what it was.

This kind of trivial process in learning stuff on the internet is really common for me. I have a question, I open the 24th tab in my web browser, type something, click a few links, figure it out, and then get back to what I was doing. Now, this is incredibly inefficient. Time-wise no, it doesn’t take a lot of time to do all that; probably less than 20 seconds in most cases. But the real cost is interruption of flow. When you’re “in the zone” reading something and you have a question, you have to break your mental focus and go through the arduous process of searching and clicking and what not, and then get back to what you were doing.

Is there a way to fix that?

Well, Siri/Google Now/Cortana are kind of getting there. You just have to click a button, talk into your phone, and you usually get a result. The specific use case I’m talking about isn’t super well-suited for their current capabilities, but they are rapidly improving. But still, the issue with clicking the button on the phone and talking to it and diverting attention to your phone to look at whatever came up still breaks your mental focus. On top of that, I’m sitting here at my desk in my dorm room with my roommate. Although he’s a pretty tolerant guy, me uttering random nonsense into my phone every few minutes would get annoying. I wish there was a way to look up these little research-y questions without bothering anybody, i.e. silently, and without forcing you to break focus.

Meanwhile, researchers are busy working on technology that can transcribe thoughts into text. Think about that for a second.

Transcribe thoughts into text.

That’s powerful.

With the rapid improvement of natural language processing, artificial intelligence, and the aforementioned thought transcription technology, I see not only a solution to the meager “oh I have to look this thing up and break my focus” problem, but a solution which could represent a fundamentally new way to interact with mobile technology; one which doesn’t require looking at a screen and awkwardly typing into the miniscule keyboard, or getting out your phone from your pocket only to click a few buttons and carefully utter some words towards the bottom in a hushed tone in order to not bother anybody.

What I’m talking about is this: the majority of your interactions with your mobile device are carried out through thought. What I mean is when I ask myself “what is RFC?”, I don’t ask myself anymore - I ask the Siri or Google Now of the future that is always listening through some unobtrusive headset (as unobtrusive as, say, a bluetooth earpiece).

Just imagine, you’re sitting at the dining hall eating breakfast and you want to know how much sugar is in your bowl of Lucky Charms. As soon as you want to know, the Siri in your ear tells you. Or you walk out of a meeting at work and think to yourself, “I should review the stuff we just went over later today”. The Google Now in your ear asks you what time to set the reminder.

We have quite a ways to go before this sort of thing is technically feasible. With the departure of the AI winter, Siri and Google Now type systems are getting a lot better a lot faster, and I’ll be honest, I know almost nothing about thought transcription technology, other than the fact that the istudy referenced above achieved a whopping 25% error rate in their best case. Natural language processing has gained a lot of traction in recent years in correlation with artificiaul intelligence. It may seem far out today, but the technology we have today is akin to magic compared to what we had in 1916.

I think I’ll get back to my VPN project now. I’ve sufficiently broken my focus.