Smartphones put AI at consumers’ fingertips.
Smartphones put AI at consumers’ fingertips.

The advent of certain technologies – inexpensive high-speed internet, secure cloud storage, mobility solutions and low-cost devices – has allowed fantastical possibilities of the past to become reality. One of the platforms that has been enabled is artificial intelligence.

And AI’s ability to process information, at high speeds and scale, unleashes endless new opportunities and infinitely better management of processes, systems, networks and information.

Voice-recognition systems are standard in new gadgets, driverless vehicles are being trialed and robotic hotel receptionists greet guests in Japan. Many industries – from healthcare to finance, travel to fashion – are being affected by AI technology.

These applications help travelers plan vacations, doctors select the right treatment plans for patients, and lawyers find important legal research in a much shorter time.

Perhaps the area where the rise of AI is having the most impact is mobile. Mobile devices put AI at consumers’ fingertips through the likes of Siri, Cortana, Alexa and Google Now – the so-called personal digital assistants embedded in your smartphone.

For now, however, personal digital assistants are simply that – assistants. They can’t make connections or fully understand the patterns of everyday life. And they don’t learn from interactions, as truly artificial intelligent applications, running on platforms built by IBM, Facebook, Google and others can.

But this is about to change. According to IT research and advisory company Gartner, by year-end 2018, consumer digital assistants will recognize individuals by face and voice across channels, and by 2020 smart agents will facilitate 40% of mobile interactions.

Gartner also predicts that virtual personal assistants agents will “monitor user content and behavior in conjunction with cloud-hosted neural networks to build and maintain data models from which the technology will draw inferences about people, content and contexts.”
So, while Siri, Alexa and Cortana won’t be appearing as super-human life forms anytime soon, what Gartner’s prediction does foreshadow is that they will become a huge trove of data for companies and consumers alike to tap into.

AI could herald the end of the era of roaming and this represents a great opportunity for operators

Personal assistants aren’t the only way devices will get smarter. Applications – programs that live in the mobile-first world – are gradually becoming more entwined with the devices themselves. Rather than simply checking for an IP connection and basic device characteristics, applications will find themselves diving deeper into handsets they live on and peering into the networks that serve them, enabling customers to enjoy a more seamless experience.

These smarter applications will transform the handset from a mere assistant to an essential, particularly when a user is in unfamiliar territory. These new AI applications already help millions of consumers plan trips and provide hotel and restaurant recommendations.

But if you’re traveling to a foreign country (and – crucially – a foreign network) having an AI capable smartphone is one thing, but having a connected AI enabled smartphone is quite another. Cross-border mobility will be a fundamental expectation, as users will refuse to tolerate their smart devices being hamstrung by out-dated network approaches to roaming. AI could herald the end of the era of roaming and this represents a great opportunity for operators.

With the ability to quickly analyze massive amounts of consumer behavior and data, mobile devices with AI applications have the ability to recognize a person the way humans recognize other people – by individual characteristics. It’s now possible to analyze and recognize multiple facets of an individual and use these together to make a picture of “you.”

This goes beyond just simple voice or facial recognition. For example, some video games use AI to analyze the way a person speaks and their body language. There are also AI applications that can detect and distinguish animals in the wild through a smartphone camera. From a picture, the application can provide information such as the scientific name of the animal and other facts about the species.

The first operator to discover the ‘killer’ application of AI which becomes a basic expectation of a smartphone rather than a gimmicky extra will open up a market of infinite opportunity

Ultimately, AI will make it possible for the network itself to adapt to the needs of end users, reconfiguring for bandwidth and speed dynamically as the end user population moves around, providing a seamless use of any and all communication paths.

For example, you won’t need to know if you are on a Wi-Fi or cell network to make a call using FaceTime on your iPhone, it will just work. At the moment, it’s on top of existing network paradigms. But imagine a mobile device on which the user doesn’t even have to think about cell coverage or Wi-Fi, it just works on any network available – including internet of things (IoT) networks, Bluetooth and others. (IoT refers to connected or smart devices, or buildings, and other items embedded with electronics, software, sensors, actuators and network connectivity that enable these objects to collect and exchange data.)

For consumers, the most exciting promise of AI is having phones that take care of menial daily tasks. For businesses, the data behind AI will fundamentally change the way they operate and utilize information. The massive amounts of data that AI systems can process in short periods of time can provide companies with invaluable insights about customer behavior, and how they can adjust their business’ practices to better meet the needs and demands of customers.

There is little argument that AI is going to change the way people live, work and behave. What is an open question is whether today’s era of data operators will become the catalyst of that change. To succeed, AI needs to become critical. The first operator to discover the “killer” application of AI which becomes a basic expectation of a smartphone rather than a gimmicky extra will open up a market of infinite opportunity.

Anthony Bartolo, President, Mobility, IoT and Business Collaboration, Tata Communications