Artificial Intelligence. Machine Learning. Deep Learning. If you haven’t heard at least one of these terms being thrown around by the big tech houses, you’ve possibly been hiding in a Y2K bunker wondering when your supply of canned goods is going to dwindle.
Cutting through the technical terms and differences between them, what do these terms mean for the average person online? The core drive is to take some of the weight of choice away from the user. “Wait, hold up, that sounds bad - I want to make my own decisions”, you’re sat there thinking, but there are genuinely valid reasons that more freedom of choice as a user can be a bad thing.
A 2015 study by Microsoft indicated that among a test group of over 2000 people, the average attention span had dropped to just 8 seconds (FYI, the average goldfish clocks in at about 9) and this number is only dropping year on year. Facebook’s own analytics detailed that as of last year, users spend an average of just 2.5 seconds with any piece of content viewed on desktop. 2.5 seconds! And this drops sharply to just 1.7 seconds on a mobile device. So is it any wonder that the world is starting to believe that users might need a little help from a machine? Making supplied content more intelligently tailored to the individual by thinking as they do could help to claw back those precious seconds of engagement.
There is a but, however. Removing choices decreases confusion and ultimately the despondency of a user, but humans don’t like to be boxed in. In video games we evolved past the rigid 2 dimensional platform side scroller, and embraced rich open worlds in which we could explore how we desired. At a certain point, people ultimately desire freedom over absolute structure. At what point will this shift come for internet users when the AI tech revolution touches every point of contact?
Take the advancements of the music industry, as a comparative example. iTunes made it so that anyone could have almost any song in minutes, destroying the CD market. Then streaming services like Spotify delivered tracks instantly and removed the need to even download, studied user behaviour to make album suggestions, put together playlists, and helped you decide on your next favourite band. And yet, in the face of this, the vinyl industry has become one of the biggest consumer growth markets of the decade - who would’ve seen that coming? No suggestions, no intelligent tech behind what you listen to, just a piece of plastic invented in 1877.
In 2007, unit sales of LPs in the US alone totalled up to around 1 million, the industry kept alive by DJs and purists. By the end of 2017, this figure had jumped to 14.3 million, with vinyl widely available in mainstream points of sale, rather than just dedicated stores.
This is just one of many examples. More and more consumers in different markets are choosing to step away from tailored experiences assisted by technology. It’s still to be seen what form this could take for the average internet user, but it’s probably more a case of when, rather than if this shift will come. To minimise its effect and keep them engaged, companies will have to delicately tread the line between gently guiding and penning people in.
To end on a quote:
“If there's one thing the history of evolution has taught us, it's that life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories, and crashes through barriers painfully, maybe even dangerously, but, uh, well, there it is." - Ian Malcolm, Jurassic Park.