Our Smartphones, Ourselves

Coming generations of smartphones will act as surrogate guardians and friends

Photo: Dan Saelinger;
Stylist: Maria-Stefania Vavylopoulou

When my family goes on a long drive, we take our US $79 Garmin GPS locator along to help us out. It talks to us in what sounds like a female British voice, and so we talk to her, and about her, along the way. Allison (as we call her) usually seems to want to take the scenic route. She wants to turn around. She says to take exit 44, not 42. She recalculates. We also carry a map to validate her directions. Happily enough, she never complains about our second-guessing. Having turned “it” into “she,” we feel a little guilty when we ignore her advice. We also tell her when we’re stopping for gas and even thank her for a job well done.

So just imagine what will happen when smartphones get really smart—like the devices described in Dan Siewiorek’s “Generation Smartphone.” Siewiorek tells the story of Tom, a man from the future, who is accompanied throughout his life’s journey by a series of “SmartPhone 2x.0s.” Each acts as a surrogate guardian, personal assistant, teacher, life coach, and companion, presumably vigilant and loyal to the very end—or at least until it’s replaced by the next version.

We’d certainly be drawn to such a thing in my home. We’re already overly attached to the vibrating, marimba-chiming boxes we carry around the clock. Today’s smartphones are remarkable pieces of technology, but they have only just begun to communicate with us naturally, using voice interfaces like the iPhone’s Siri.

But outside of a few specific areas—dining, calendaring, and so on—let’s face it: Siri is still pretty clueless. Future generations of smartphones, however, will exploit much more powerful processors and software to “learn” about our environment and us. They’ll absorb vast amounts of data, much of it coming from sensors and the so-called Internet of Things that they will be immersed in.

Among the sensors feeding these future phones will be personal health and wellness devices, of the sort described in Emily Waltz’s article in this issue, “How I Quantified Myself.” They’ll monitor our sleep patterns, blood pressure, heart rate, and glucose levels. Naturally, we’ll want our phones to send this data to our physicians and compare them with our own baselines as well as medical databases.

But what happens when this brilliant smartphone of yours is able to evaluate your health data in real time and quickly give you diagnoses, exhortations, and admonitions in a Siri-like voice—with or without a British accent? Will you be more or less likely to take seriously the advice of a phone, compared to that of a flesh-and-blood physician?

The potential quagmires posed by a souped-up Siri are not hard to imagine. Perhaps your phone will report health problems in such a way that they could be accessed by prospective employers, love interests, or insurance companies. Noticing your distractibility and device addiction while you text and drive, perhaps it will turn off your car and send one report to the police and one to your therapist. And when it makes mistakes—you weren’t driving erratically, the phone’s accelerometer was on the fritz—rectifying the situation could prove tough.

Despite such caveats, a future of smartphone companions may be upon us before we know it. Silicon Valley venture capitalist Marc Andreessen predicts that just 10 years from now, 5 billion people will have smartphones like the ones that already rule many of our homes and offices. What will it mean for our cultures, our work, and our lives when all these smartphones are able to talk to us, and then to each other?

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