The smartphone’s smartness in the near future

Last week, five of my calls were interrupted due to a specific reason – four of them for the person at the other end, and one for me.

What happened? We were OTP’d!

That is, some e-commerce delivery arrived at our home and a delivery person sought the OTP that was sent to our phones. The four on the other end excused themselves by telling me that they need to give the OTP to someone at the door/at the apartment’s security area and that they would call back shortly. I offered the same excuse too.

Now, I understand the need for OTP and also the simple fact that it is part of the process for the delivery person and they are simply doing their job, but from my perspective, this is such a low-level task that it should not take time from an important call and the ensuing flow of thought.

If my phone was really smart, I should be able to tell my phone that if there is an incoming call (while I’m on another call, at that) and the word OTP is mentioned, the phone should check my incoming text messages, see the OTP and read it out to the caller.

Wait, does that sound like science fiction? 🙂

It probably is, within our current smartphone evolution, but there are smaller signals that this scenario is probably feasible in the near future.

For instance, Android already has a call screening feature in the Pixel series that lets Google Assistant take a call to decide whether it is a robocall or a human calling, and cut the call if it’s the former.

Not just that, Google demonstrated something called Google Duplex at the Google I/O 2018 event where Sundar Pichai lets Google Assistant make a call to book an appointment. It was, frankly, too good to be true.

Google Duplex’s real-world success has been spotty since the 2018 announcement.

But the larger point is about the smartness of our phone or the lack of it. Currently, our so-called smartphones need us to do everything and cannot take orders.

They would really become smart when they are able to do things on our instruction. For example:

Pay Netflix using my X card – this includes selecting a payment mechanism (probably marked by me as ‘preferred’), initiating the payment by selecting Netflix as the vendor, make the payment, enter the OTP (of course!!), and close the transaction. This is such a low-level task that I need not be spending my time on this at all. Even if it takes barely under a minute, I should be able to automate it (RBI just killed automated recurring payments by card, by the way 🙂 ), and even better – outsource it to my phone’s AI.

Expecting a delivery from Amazon. Share the OTP when the delivery person calls – the process I mentioned above.

Buy Y movie (pay-per-view) and add it to my list. Send an alert about it to <name> for Friday night at 9 pm – self-explanatory.

These are the kind of tasks that busy people hand over to a secretary. But I fully expect phones to become smarter than they are today and take on such menial tasks. Imagine simply asking your phone to perform these low-level tasks and it complies!

While we are at tasks, why not extend that smartness to charging too? Automatic vacuum cleaners like the Roomba self-charge – meaning, after they have completed the cleaning task they move towards the home base and charge themselves! Can smartphones become smart enough to charge themselves when needed?

Oh yes, phones lack the mobility that the Roomba is equipped with. But long-range wireless charging is catching up!

Imagine the charging process working like connecting to wi-fi! These days, all phones connect to the available wi-fi of a place automatically by scanning the surroundings. So, I assume they can eventually scan for nearby wireless charging availability and automatically start charging.

But the real challenge when this becomes a reality is around the phone’s security. Right now, from a phone security point of view, all a hacker can get is the details we have on the device.

In the future, when there is a machine brain in the device that can act on its own (based on our instructions), the security of the device needs to be significantly better not just to avoid exposing the data but also to not take instructions from people other than the owner. Right now, such restrictions are based on passwords or physical artefacts like face/fingerprint recognition. But the future equivalent would need to be built probably like how a bank caller verifies our details – ask questions to let the person answer specific keywords, and possibly in a specific voice too!

The other possibility—one that multiple science-fiction stories have warned us about—is this machine brain starting to think for itself. If our phone’s machine brain can think for itself to perform tasks for us—though they are predetermined by us—how soon would it be before they start taking a decision on their own?

Despite the plateau we seem to have hit with regard to smartphones that are currently obsessed with cameras and screens, I somehow feel that the most exciting days for smartphones as a device are in the near future, from a software perspective more than hardware. AI’s first widespread commercial use is already seeing its early days via the smartphone, but what is possible in the near future seems incredibly more exciting.

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