Jeeves: Communications and Artificial Intelligence in the 21st Century
Some regard the future as though it were a thing that happens to us, something out of our control. But the future is not one eventuality. It is a set of possibilities, a great many of which will come about (although not necessarily in the same place). It is up to us as individuals to choose which possibility we wish to experience, and to go to that corner of the world where that future is coming to fruition. The possibilities most widely realized will be those that best satisfy human needs.
One of the most fundamental human needs is the need to communicate. This need goes beyond the need to talk or write to another person, though those needs are real. We seek a selfless companion/assistant, with devotion beyond what we could expect of a friend or co-worker. We seek someone who is always there, who always listens, who has great capabilities, and who is always eager to help. This is what many people will ask of the new computerized communications technologies.
What shape will this companion/assistant take? It has been widely noted that computers have become smaller, much more powerful, and dramatically cheaper with time. An implication of this is that computers will become ubiquitous, become built into the machines and environment surrounding us. Most significantly, work on speech recognition should lead to omnipresent yet "invisible" computers which are built in to our homes, and can hear and respond to our questions and needs. When computers no longer sit on our desks but instead become invisible and learn to hear us, they will no longer be called computers. They will become a personal assistant/companion which I will call "Jeeves," after the prototypical British servant. Jeeves will be each person's communications node to the outside world, and especially to that widespread network of computers which we now call the Internet.
Just as different people use different "themes" in MS Windows, each person will create a different Jeeves, each with its own voice and personality. As you sit in your living room, a typical interchange might go as follows:
Jeeves: "Bob, your cousin Ryan would like to speak to you."
Bob: "I can't talk now. Ask him to leave a message and I'll call back."
Jeeves: "Yes, sir" (or "Roger" or "OK" or "Your wish is my command").
Jeeves to Ryan: "Bob can't talk to you right now. Would you like to leave a message?"
Ryan: "Sure. Ask him to call me back. It's about our hunting trip."
Jeeves to Ryan: "I'll let him know. Goodbye."
This computerized assistant can do more than can a regular telephone. It can screen calls, make calls, and take paraphrased messages. Interaction will be visual as well as vocal, with video screens and portable book screens distributed around the house. Keyboarding and written communication will survive these changes, since they foster a more careful communication. But we will no longer have separate TVs, computers, stereos, alarm clocks, telephones, recorders, or CD players. Instead, we will distinguish between fixed displays and portable displays. Some people may wish to place digital interfaces in one of their ears or elsewhere on their person so they can communicate with or through Jeeves at any time or place. Jeeves will be with us everywhere, if we wish.
Distinctions between school, home, and work will blur. Both work and play will involve educating ourselves, and these activities will take place at home as well as in an office environment. Places of work will also be places of education. Jeeves will become our tutor as well as our companion and helper. Since our activities will vary from day to day, and not follow a rigid daily schedule, Jeeves will become valuable in keeping track of where we should be at any given time. Jeeves will remind us of appointments and help us organize our time.
The Internet is emerging as the repository of all human knowledge, and makes it easy for individuals to both draw on and contribute to this fund of knowledge. Yet the Internet is more than a repository of knowledge: it is a network of machines and people that can do things. In a sense, Jeeves is the "front end" of the Internet, its "human" face. Jeeves doesn't need to be an intellectual giant, but can draw on the intellectual resources of an entire world. Jeeves doesn't need to know how to play chess, since there is a program in a computer in, say, Los Angeles that plays chess exceedingly well. Jeeves simply forwards the moves to that computer, and relays its responses. From the standpoint of the user, the other computer is invisible, and it is Jeeves that can play chess.
We still have libraries, but they will become obsolete. When all the information in the world can be piped to one's home, why go to the library? Non-fiction book publishing will not be able to compete with Jeeves-like interactional programs and with hypertext readers. Even novels will increasingly be read from hand-held flat displays. Such lightweight "readers" will be able to store many books, together with word definitions and hypertexted comments. If we like, we can turn off the room lights, lie back, close our eyes, and ask Jeeves to read the novel to us
Most people will probably wish to keep Jeeves invisible. At some point in time when neural circuitry motor control is up to it, some people may choose to give their Jeeves bodies. Most such assistants/companions will probably be pleasing to the eye and enough like us that we can relate to them as persons, yet not so humanlike that there is a danger of our thinking of them as human. No matter what their appearance or personality, none will be capable of experiencing pleasure, pain, or independent purpose. Yet a Jeeves with a body is fundamentally different from a Jeeves without a body, since a Jeeves incarnate is a robot and can interact with the physical environment. This will introduce entirely new questions