After meticulously analyzing virtually every aspect of his digital life since 1989, Stephen Wolfram noticed something: “The more routine I can make the basic practical aspects of my life, the more I am able to be energetic — and spontaneous — about intellectual and other things.”
We spend too much time on practical, mundane tasks. One study from 2010 states that people who worked in offices spent five hours per week scheduling meetings. Another reported that workers spend half the day on “necessary, yet unproductive tasks,” such as routine communications and “filtering incoming information.” Even President Obama avoids trivial decisions. He owns only gray and blue suits; he doesn’t choose what he eats for lunch because:
You need to focus your decision-making energy. You need to routinize yourself. You can’t be going through the day distracted by trivia.
At first glance, it would seem that technology would make this process easier. Obviously, technology has afforded us huge gains in time in some very real ways. Traveling by car can get you to Los Angeles a lot quicker than a horse. Communicating via email sends messages across oceans at near-instant speed. But instead of traveling less or communicating less, we do the opposite: we communicate more; we travel more. A few years ago, Google’s Eric Schmidt said that “Every two days now we create as much information as we did from the dawn of civilization up until 2003.” And most of this information is not critical.
To deal with the influx, we multitask. We context shift. Often switching between not just the mundane, but also the things we care deeply about. Joe Kraus wonders if the crisis of attention goes so deep that we are losing ourselves, our relationships, and in some ways, our humanity. On a graph, the line of things that demand our attention and effort is going up, but our human ability to process them remains unchanged. There’s a gap.
We try to do it all, managing inputs of superhuman proportions and trying to become superhuman ourselves. We persevere, clinging to strategies that are proven not to work because we don’t know a better way.
In The Future, Computers Will Act On Our Behalf
Letting computers do mundane things for us will give us time back, allowing us to be spontaneous and intellectually involved in the things that really matter. It may seem that computers already act on our behalf. My bank auto-pays my credit card bill for me. Uber calls cabs for me. My Mac calculator even does my math for me (when no one’s looking).
It’s not exactly accurate to say these tasks are being “done on your behalf” by a computer. Rather, they’re being enabled by a computer. There’s a big difference. Auto-pay is easier than physically going to the bank, but you still have to go to a computer and tell it what to do. When computers truly act on our digital behalf, the process would be more like Pandora – with a few simple inputs, the computer continuously applies its vast computer intelligence to make my life better.
Your computer will only be able to reliably and automatically act on your behalf when it has the context to know what you really want. Sarah Perez has been asking for it, and Robert Scoble has been writing about how our mobile devices, and the new technology built into them, are ushering in a third age of human-computer interaction. Soon, Scoble says, we’ll have a device that “saves us from clicking on the screen,” that will provide the contextual data that actually improves day-to-day experiences:
In the future my cell phone will know I ordered a pizza. Will know when I get in my car. Will know who is in the car with me. And will give me contextual data that will make my life better. For instance, on my todo list I might have put “pick up a hammer at the hardware store.” It will know that Round Table Pizza is near the hardware store. It will know I have an extra 15 minutes.
This proper knowledge of who you are, what you like, and how you act will help computers act on your behalf, and thereby, make your day to day life better.
I don’t think this technology will stop at picking up pizzas and hammers. Your alarm clock should be adjusted based on how well you slept and the travel time to your first appointment tomorrow. When your self-driving car hits traffic, your appointments for the entire day should be instantly updated. When a conflict arises, events that can’t be moved stay put, meetings that can be shortened are, and everyone who needs to know should be notified, all without you doing a thing. When you step outside, a cab should be waiting to take you home, but instead of playing irrelevant ads on the screen in the back, it’s playing the trailer for the movie you’ve queued up to watch that night. When someone is late, they shouldn’t have to text you; instead, a message should be sent automatically to whatever screen you’re currently looking at with an updated arrival time.
Why This Will Be A Good Thing
Delegating mundane tasks to a computer frees us to spend our time as we choose and focus on what matters. There are even studies that suggest that being more open and involved in everyday life can make us “luckier.” So-called “unlucky people” miss “chance opportunities because they are too focused on looking for something else.”
The full implications of a future where machines act for us can be intimidating. Even now, there are legitimate privacy and security concerns about computers being involved in every aspect of our lives. As this movement grows, creators and users alike have the ability to effect change, by advocating for responsible and respectful standards.
So is this seemingly far-fetched utopia where computers act on our behalf possible? We’re certainly working hard to make it a reality at Cue, and we’re not the only ones. Google Now wants to show you weather, traffic, and sports scores before you think to ask for them. Apple’s Passbook shows you boarding passes, movie tickets, and coupons on your lock screen.
These established companies, and even more newcomers are participating in a subtle, yet massive technological shift. As is the case with most subtle, yet massive, technological shifts, we cannot completely dictate its trajectory, but we can give this shift the attention it deserves. We can acknowledge the huge potential for the betterment of our daily lives, and work to mitigate any drawbacks. In the battle over our most finite resource, time, I’m excited to work to earn some back.
[Image: Daily Mail]