From people travelling in a train to families having dinner at the table, mobile phones have made a permanent place in our hands, and an indispensable one in our lives. In fact, if I ask you right now to summarise everything you did during the day, there’s a fairly high chance your smartphone screen-time will comprise a large share of it. These proportions have only increased nowadays, with people staying home all day due to the pandemic.
With such extensive integration of mobile phones with everyday life, mobile phone technology has also been evolving since forever. From tiny phones with physical keys to the first touch phone, to now elaborate smartphones - the journey of this industry has been dynamic. The most recent integration in this field has been that of Artificial Intelligence.
Understanding Artificial Intelligence
Intelligence is defined as one’s ability to perceive and interpret one’s environment, acquire knowledge and apply it in a suitable manner. Humans are considered reasonably intelligent beings, so are animals (did you know pigs have an IQ nearly equal to a 4 year old human child’s?). How about objects? Chairs and tables? Perhaps if chairs backed and tables set themselves without external help every time we tried to have supper.
What about machines? Before you answer, I urge you to think about the last time your keyboard’s predictive text completed your sentence for you, or Uber or Lyft showed rides available near your location.
When the job of a human mind is done by a machine, the technology is called Artificial Intelligence (henceforth AI). Thanks to extensive dramatisation in novels and films, larger-than-life ‘Transformers’ from the movies - stepping on buildings and taking over the planet - are what first come to mind when we talk about AI. Being a tad more realistic makes us think of robots who walk and talk. In reality, AI is a rather elite technology that usually looks nothing like the above, and has gradually become part and parcel of our lives. It has been built to mimic a human brain by perceiving information, processing it and taking actions that maximise efficiency while minimising error in output. It has the ability to learn and solve problems, as well as rationalise and be goal-oriented. Today, our dependence on AI is to the extent that without it, a lot of our daily tasks would be rendered so cumbersome, they would linger on the border of impossibility.
AI and Mobile Phones - a New Age
Today’s mobile phones are smart - they are ‘phones with context’ (as christened by Google in their annual report). With AI automating a wide variety of actions on our phones, human effort is minimised with an increase in accuracy. What’s more, with features such as observation, real-time analysis and predictions, it’s like your phone knows you. The main idea is to customise performance as much as possible.
Some features impact the working of the phone itself. There are others that are employed on mobile-first websites and/or mobile apps. Let’s explore both below.
Built-in Mobile Features
A lot of basic functions on our mobile phones are automated these days. This means our phones are adaptive to the external environment, and sensitive to user patterns. This means manual changes are monitored closely so that the phone can learn to auto-adjust in the future. Some examples of this are:
1.Adaptive Battery The longer a charge lasts, the more efficient a smartphone is considered to be. Battery optimisation has been rendered possible through AI. There is an internal load division according to a long-time observation of phone usage. The goal is to adjust till maximum usage is being extracted.
2. Adaptive Brightness It is seldom that we have to manually open the brightness scale and adjust the light on our screen according to where we are. Without our intervention, our screens self-adjust to the amount of daylight/electric light in the room. Other than this, the time of the day also impacts the display. There are night-time shifts now available in Apple and Samsung phones. They filter out blue light as the day progresses and shift the display tint to the yellow-red side of the spectrum after sunset. This helps in maintaining a healthy day-night cycle for people who actively use their smartphones through the day
3. Virtual Assistants ‘Siri, text Dad I’ll be late for dinner’ or ‘OK Google, make me two reservations to the theatre tonight at 8’ are fascinating yet totally real phrases people say to their phones today, and these phrases totally work. Smartphones come with very close-to-real assistants now who answer your queries, give you the information you need or call and make bookings for you. They use voice recognition to do this. Moreover, much like a human secretary would, they learn about you over time. You might often find them making smart decisions. If you prompt your assistant and then scroll through its suggestions, you might find what you were looking for before even asking for it. For example, the price of a lyft ride, or the name of a restaurant delivering to your office.
Mobile-first Apps and Websites
A study by Dresner shows sales and marketing prefer utilising AI and ML large-scale more than any other department in a company/industry. This makes a lot of sense. As highlighted before, this generation spends huge amounts of time on their phones. Industries therefore aim to capitalise on this dependency and optimise consumer interactions through mobile phones.
This would make marketing quicker and cost-effective. . Gartner reveals in its study that more than a third of data analysts in companies can be replaced by AI by 2022. AI will perform-
- lead scoring
- anomaly detection
- marketing performance management, and
- reporting to see to that end.
Here are some ways in which this integration manifests itself:
1.Chatbots Chatbots are computer programs that engage people in human-like conversations. They automate business transactions by processing orders, making booking like in hotels and flights, scheduling appointments, etc. There are query solvers on apps like Zomato, Flipkart and Big Basket that provide constant assistance and problem solving. This has various benefits for a business: a. For a customer, chatbots are easy to talk to. There is 24/7 availability in a comprehensive language. For example, Facebook has over 300,000 chatbots. b. You can even place orders through chatbots. This makes choosing a brand seem simpler and quicker. Profitability boosts as a result. Dominos, Pizza Hut, Starbucks, Spotify are some examples of businesses that profit by selling through bots. c. There is a reduction in customer support costs. Fewer agents are required, overtime hours are minimal. d. The interactions customers have with chatbots can be auto analysed to create personalised conversation in the future.
2.Dynamic Pricing Instead of having fixed prices, prices are kept dynamic and open to real-time adjustments based on market demand and how much a consumer can and is willing to pay. Also, discounts are not offered homogeneously. Price cuts are often directed at consumers who have a greater propensity to shift to the brand when a discount is offered. For example, Amazon uses AI to monitor Key Value Items (KVIs) and Key Value Categories (KVCs). Studying KVIs and KVCs with respect to consumers enables amazon to make specific and targeted promotions.
3.Ad Targeting with Consumer Data Analysis What you buy and where you buy it from. The kind of products that interest you and the topics you mostly discuss with your friends. Where you live, what your age is and how you vote. The time you’re most active on your mobile. When it comes to mobile marketing, nothing from the above list of details about you is private, nor irrelevant. AI algorithms watch and act on every single thing anybody does on their devices - in this case, their smartphones. This is why buying dog food on Amazon results in suggestions for cute leashes, water bowls and paw-slippers on Flipkart. Or discussing a piano model with your friend exposes you to Simply-Piano YouTube suggestions. Or perhaps how Spotify knows you’ll listen to the next song if it’s by Hozier. Unsurprisingly, with these methods, people click where brands want them to more often.
The Flip Side
True, a personalised mobile experience gives people short term happiness and helps businesses boost their sales through mobile apps, websites and social media. But in this highly digitalised world, there are some things that go unnoticed and can have mammoth consequences.
The methods and examples we have discussed above are all a part of the attention extraction economy. The attention extraction economy is an industry that functions by catching our attention. AI driven newsfeeds, smart suggestions, push notifications and offers are pointed at users left, right and centre. Mobile phones are made more and more attractive because our addiction is what the entire industry monetises on.
According to Tristan Harris, founder of the ‘Time Well Spent’ movement and ex-Google executive, a mass degradation of our collective ability to solve global threats like pandemics, inequality, climate change or radicalism is going on as we speak. Depressed, outraged, polarised and addicted youth are the biggest reason behind this. When people with the strings monetise in such circumstances, the future of truth and democracy seems questionable.
Bringing it all together
In light of ‘Time Well Spent’, first Apple launched screen time monitoring features, along with settings to auto-silence push notifications at night. Soon after, Google launched an Android feature that limits phone usage by greying the screen at night. This dampens the colours used by apps to trigger the brain’s excitation response, making the notifications less attention-catching.
However, for this movement to actually have a positive impact, people need to keep going back to the root of the problem and not make superficial changes. For instance, Facebook and their tokenistic efforts. They recently made some cosmetic changes on their app, checked the ‘Time Well Spent’ box, thereby easily co-opting the motto. They hence pitched the movement itself as a marketing strategy. The problem exists despite these seeming bandaids, according to Harris, and won’t be solved till these structures and algorithms are reimagined. After all, it’s like he said in his recent, rather famous documentary - The Social Dilemma - ‘If you’re getting a product for free, you are the product’.
With both upsides and downsides, tradeoffs need to be made. Let’s see if tech giants take it upon themselves to make these adjustments.
When the job of a human mind is done by a machine, the technology is called Artificial Intelligence (henceforth AI). Thanks to extensive dramatisation in novels and films, larger-than-life ‘Transformers’ from the movies - stepping on buildings and taking over the planet - are what first come to mind when we talk about AI. Being a tad more realistic makes us think of robots who walk and talk. In reality, AI is a rather elite technology that usually looks nothing like the above, and has gradually become part and parcel of our lives. It has been built to mimic a human brain by perceiving