The Web's Digital Members

by David Cunningham
Sun Jun 03 2018

One of the most fascinating aspects of web development to me is that the internet is a community, not only where human entities intermingle with digital entitites, but the boundary between the two can become blurred. From the perspective of a person (or a server) receiving a message, that message could have been crafted by another person, or entirely by a program, or a mix of both. A good example of a blending of the two is Google Inbox's response suggestions. Someone sends you an email about how new information will need to be included in tomorrow's presentation, and Google Inbox gives you three uncannily helpful suggestions like "Thanks for the heads up!", "Will do!", and "Thanks! I'm on it!". When actively used, this grays the distinction between who is actually communicating with the sender - you, or Google's algorithm.

This kind of human computer collaboration will become pervasive and ubiquitous as AI is developed further, and the internet will be in many ways the home of these types of interactions. Just as for the last few decades we have perfected the art of using the internet to most effectively communicate what we want to say, the internet will increasingly contribute to the not just the means of communication, but the original content communicated.

This extends beyond social formalities like email responses. As this kind of language and contextual processing improves, we will have systems that provide us with relevant information, processed data, and complex answers on the fly, listening to us, understanding us, and interjecting with pertinent data and advice like the equivalent of a panel of experts huddled around each participant. People will increasingly have not just the ability to research information, but will have customized, complex, real time, relevant information provided to them in all facets of life. Even those who don't compulsively research topics they don't feel familiar with will be bolstered by a system that takes the initiative for them, and provides the expertise when it's immediately relevant.

It's hard for me to conceptualize the full implications of this kind of technology. Just as Google changed the way we live our day to day lives, allowing us to learn about anything and everything we weren't familiar with, I believe this kind of real-time assistance will have an equivalent or greater impact on the world, because it will impact not only the researchers, but those who don't have the time or motivation to pore through search results. At some point, ignorance in many domains will not only be inexcusable, but almost inconceivable, as this kind of constant expertise becomes an accepted fact of life in the way the mobile devices, social media, and web search are today.