The Rise of the Machines

It’s easy to forget that a decade ago, analysts used to wonder if mobile phone penetration rates could ever approach 100 percent. How times change. In mobile-mad Finland, the penetration rate is now 182% while the rest of Europe averages 132%.
 
What those cautious forecasters of a decade ago failed to predict was the trend for subscribers to own multiple SIMs – in some countries this is quite pronounced – and, most recently, the inexorable rise of machine-to-machine (M2M) connections.
 
In developed markets like Europe and North America, these drivers will help ensure that the number of mobile phone connections keeps growing at around 9 percent a year. That’s in stark contrast to the market for “real” subscribers, which is predicted to grow at just 1 percent a year in these regions, according to the Mobile Economy 2013 report from the GSMA, the trade body for the mobile industry.
 
Indeed, one of the most noticeable trends at the GSMA’s recent Mobile World Congress event was the industry’s new focus on M2M applications particularly in the area of what we could call “connected living” – applications that allow consumers to interact with their home, vehicle or city.
 
To be sure, the M2M market is at a nascent stage and accounts for just 4% of total mobile connections today. But that figure is projected to grow to 13% by 2017 when there could be 1.2bn connected devices according to the GSMA.
 
The growth of the M2M market promises to fundamentally change the way people use and relate to their mobile phones. As such, it represents a unique opportunity for vendors such as Artificial Solutions, whose technology makes it easier for people to converse with devices in a human-like and intelligent manner.
 
But will people really want to have human-like conversations on their mobile phone with their washing machine, for example?
 
I believe they will, no matter how strange it may seem today. For example, let’s imagine you have incorrectly programmed the washing machine before leaving home. You realize the error when you arrive at work and desperately need to reprogram the washing machine before it reaches the spin-dry stage so that the delicate clothes you mixed in with the rest of the washing do not get creased.
 
Your only option today would be to try to contact your partner or family member by mobile phone to see if they can race home and hit the washing machine’s pause button before too much damage is done. That of course, assumes the family member knows how to operate the washing machine!
 
I suspect that many consumers would be prepared to pay a premium for a more “intelligent” washing machine that could interact with its owners using natural language and mobile phones rather than requiring them to press buttons.
 
Today’s high-end models have already abandoned electromechanical timers for microprocessors, and so the marginal cost of adding a wireless network connection and an application programming interface is not  prohibitive.
 
As for the software, we will likely see the growth of “domestic assistant” apps for mobile phones that aim to make it easier to interact with domestic appliances.
 
But before we get too excited, let’s take a step back in time. In a 1980 academic paper entitled ‘Natural language interaction with machines: a passing fad or the way of the future?’ Michael Noll, a researcher at AT&T, painted a bright future in which machines capable of speaking to their owners would be commonplace:
 
“The fascination of technologists with speech-synthesis chips is about to result in a variety of stand-alone appliances that speak. Ovens that state when the roast is done, washing machines that call for the addition of fabric softeners, automobiles that inform the driver that the door is open, and many other applications will soon abound in the marketplace.”
 
At that time, Texas Instruments’ Speak & Spell was a popular Christmas present for children and so the vision of a home full of devices that spoke to their owners seemed entirely plausible.
 
But as Mr. Noll also acknowledged in his paper, “many of these applications will undoubtedly be little more than passing fads. “ Once the novelty wears off, the value of a device that can speak a handful of robotic-sounding phrases but has no interactive communication capabilities is limited.
 
Natural language interaction, I would argue is far from being a passing fad because, as with the washing machine example above, it can fulfill the real and unmet needs of consumers as they go about their connected lives.

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