Wake up and plug into the future

Can you imagine a time when your cellphone will be able to make a call on your behalf and actually converse with someone? This may sound like science fiction, but that time is here. A few weeks ago, Google conducted a spectacular demonstration where Google Assistant, Google’s artificially intelligent system, made a call to a hair salon and made an appointment.

What was truly great about the demonstration was that Google Assistant dialed the salon and spoke to the receptionist in a casual, human-like fashion. It was so convincing that the receptionist did not know she was speaking to a machine. Google Assistant even dropped in a casual, very human-like “Mm-hmm” into the conversation!

“The amazing thing is that Google Assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation,” according to Google CEO, Sundar Pichai. “We’ve been working on this technology for many years. It’s called Google Duplex.”

What this simply means, is that the system is able to speak, listen and understand, all at the same time, just like a human. What’s more, the system can even react intelligently if the conversation takes an expected turn.

Conversations with machines
It was a truly remarkable demonstration, and a sure sign of things to come. In the near future, your phone will be able to make calls on your behalf to make appointments and bookings, or even take a call for you if you are busy, and conduct an intelligent conversation with the caller. Perhaps it will even be able to mimic your voice.

It certainly isn’t hard to imagine a time when you might call a company and have a full conversation with someone who you think is human, but will, in actual fact, be a computer. This will surely make business sense: why hire dozens of call center agents when a single computer will suffice?

Undoubtedly, information technology has come a long way, and these are truly amazing times to be alive. There was a time when we used to marvel at the little things, like being able to make face-to-face calls to people in other parts of the world, or send a text message, an image, an audio clip or a video anywhere in the world in seconds.

I remember being fascinated when online flight bookings became a thing, and I still haven’t gotten over the fact that if I need a ride, I can open an app, choose a destination, make payment, and then be picked up by a car within minutes. But all that was way back in 2017. Things have moved on now. Welcome to the fourth industrial revolution.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

There are many things that distinguish the fourth industrial revolution from its forerunner, but the most significant differentiator is that in the past, computers and technology were simply tools that we used to streamline our lives. They were really powerful tools, and were great at what they did, but ultimately the human was the controller. We had our place in the real world, and they had theirs in the cyber-world.

But now, all that has changed. The lines are blurred, and computers are no longer confined to the digital world. They’ve made their foray into the real world, and have begun to do things that were traditionally done by humans. Back then, they were extensions of our minds, but now they have minds of their own. They are able to sense their surroundings, converse, and make decisions. They are even able to drive vehicles.

Autonomous vehicles are already being prototyped in parts of the world, and once they have been thoroughly tested and perfected, it will be just a matter of time before they replace human-driven vehicles entirely, just as the ‘automobile’ replaced the horse just over a century ago. There will probably come a time when it will actually be strange to see a human driving a vehicle.

Taking it a step further, Dubai successfully tested an autonomous passenger drone taxi, which is projected to be in full operation by 2020. Take a moment to take this in: an autonomous flying taxi. This is not science fiction; it is a reality.

Then there are the wearable devices, which are computers embedded inside clothing, like watches and footwear. These devices are intelligent enough to monitor our health and fitness, and even warn us when something is not right. Consider the case of a Hong Kong man whose life was saved by his Apple watch: the watch detected an abnormally high heart rate, and gave him a warning. He immediately sought medical assistance, and doctors found that he had almost suffered a heart attack.

Communication in the 21st Century

Communication in the 21st century is not just between humans; it is between us and our myriad devices, their communications with each other, and their environments. We are living in a connected, technology-driven world that was mere science fiction just a couple of decades ago, but is now our reality.

No one really knows where all this is heading. As technology marches ahead, computing power and storage increases exponentially, and as brilliant, innovative individuals keep pushing the boundaries of what’s possible, the story will unravel. There isn’t a shadow of a doubt that whatever the future holds, it is going to be very interesting.

The big question for us is, what role will our kids play in this? Will they be at the forefront of technology innovation, or will they be passive observers? Do we have a comprehensive strategy in place for them?

Will Africa play a meaningful role in the fourth industrial revolution?

Bilal is Head of Learning and Teaching Innovation at Educor
He blogs about kids, technology and education at www.bilalkat.com

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