Welcoming the Sentient World

Jeremiah Owyang, partner at Altimeter Group, stated it loud and clear on his appearance in LeWeb Keynote in London a few months ago: “Everything around us is alive and full of information.”

The concept of “Sentient World” (SW) is so recent that, to date, it only shows 29,000 results in Google search (with quotations).  Why it is becoming a trending topic over the web these days is mainly due to Altimeter’s initiative to include it among their research themes this year, following on previous discussions about “Dynamic Customer Journey” and “Adaptive Organization”.

The sentient world is here to stay, so let us try to understand what it may bring along the way.

According to Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, “sentient” can be defined as “responsive to (…) sense impressions”.  As I see it, when Altimeter analysts state that “in the future, our devices will be able to manage, analyze, report, predict, forecast, and more”, they are anticipating the forthcoming consequences of today’s growing shift towards automated devices.  I think they would agree to put it this way: Inanimate objects are on the verge of becoming sentient.

Overview

Where customers are invited to witness the birth of the sentient world, companies are encouraged to be part of it.  Some brands have already jumped in, thus setting the ground for others to join them: Samsung, LG, Ford, Toyota, and many others. They are all having their share in making this happen:  smart refrigerators and TVs, cloud computing services and in-car voice commands systems are just a few of the products striding forward in this newly born world.

However, not only technology companies have their say in the sentient world.  Other examples have come up too, showing how marketing and customer care departments can make the best out of this world.  Take Tesco for instance, whose Home plus customers in Seoul are able to scan goods with their smartphones, in subway virtual stores, in order to place orders for home delivery.  Isn’t this amazing?  Quoting Owyang again; “their online sales have increased by 130%” after Home plus App’s launch in April 2011.

Home Plus App

The most recent version of Google Goggles App, Google’s image recognition application for smart devices, also tries to help customers to improve their shopping experience, and this is thanks to the enhanced product recognition technology they are using.

According to Dentsu, “the world’s most innovative advertising agency”, virtual coupons for nearby business are the next best thing.  Their iButterfly App (showing coupons in the shape of butterflies, flying around smartphone screens, which you need to catch and release) has set the basis for coupon entertainment.

iButterfly App

In-Depth

If we now see road signs advertising and giving precise information about the location of fast food restaurants (they are all along America’s highways), for sure there will come a time when these restaurant chains will market their brands on our GPS devices.  Would you really like that?

US highway sign

Applying virtual layers of information on top of the real world may seem harmless.  However, where customer actions are monitored and analyzed, one question arises:  how are individual users’ data being kept (and used) by these companies?  Privacy policies are often too vague: “In order to provide some of the core features in (…) products, our automated systems will scan and index some user data.”  The gap of data gathering, management and protection cannot be overlooked.

On the other hand, in addition to this, next steps in the sentient world are still not clear.  However, they would seem to point in the direction of enabling huge networks of devices connected between them.  Can you compare the user experience of an iPhone 5 owner (cool as it must be) to that of someone who also owns a Mac or an iPad, and pays for all the extended features of iCloud and/or iTunes Match accounts?

NLI

Artificial Solution’s Natural Language Interaction (NLI) suite is a perfect candidate to take up the sentient world challenge.

Take the following statement (extracted from Artificial Solutions’ website):

Natural Language Interaction delivers the intelligence that enables online and mobile virtual assistants, mobile apps, software programs and even smart-devices such as the next generation of TVs – to think, reason and converse in a natural, humanlike manner.

Now substitute the highlighted sentence with “inanimate objects”:

Natural Language Interaction delivers the intelligence that enables inanimate objects to think, reason and converse in a natural, humanlike manner.

It may not be as simple as a word play, but I firmly believe that NLI is able to answer some of the most difficult SW implications and questions:

  1. It is often the case that users end up with a huge set of separate, self-managed devices and applications.  NLI is powerful enough to become the super-system connecting and handling all of them together.
  2. When is system pro-activity better than strict user demand?  Where is the balance between these?  Thanks to NLI’s core technology, with its linguistic intelligence, memory, and context, we could anticipate user needs just in the right measure.
  3. Is there a more “sentient” ability than understanding and being understood?  The sentient world presupposes a bidirectional interaction between users and devices.  Interpreting, monitoring and reacting to users’ inputs are feasible actions through NLI’s three established processing stages: analyze, reason and react.

I would like to see a future where NLI’s systems lead the way towards gathering together independent sets of applications, connecting and humanizing separate collections of inanimate objects, ultimately adding a “sentient” capability to all of them.

The time to decide is now:  do we want to be pioneers in the sentient world, or are we fine with just being followers?

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