The future of phones? It’s all about context
When Google snapped up the British artificial intelligence specialist DeepMind Technologies a few weeks ago for a reported $400m, it wasn't because it was interested in founder Demis Hassibis' excellent game design credentials or chess skills.
It's because the company has long since bet the farm that its future isn't just about finding stuff for you that you want to know, it's working out what you're going to want to know and getting it to you before you know you want to know it.
To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld, Google's grand vision is that if it can learn enough about you what you're interested in, there are no more 'known unknowns'.
And Google's not alone. Microsoft's founder Bill Gates has long espoused a similar vision, showing off mock-ups of what that known known world looks like back at CES in 2006. Apple's Siri, on its quest to be the ultimate personal assistant, is a similar endeavour.
But it's Google that's in the news again. Last week it was discovered that the default launcher/home screen for the Nexus 5 is now called 'Google Now', which hints at just how important contextual search is to the future of Android.
And it's not just Android. As far as the online rumour mill knows, Google Now and Siri will be the basis for Google and Apple's smartwatches. That means wrist-sized screens that show you what you need to know, when you need to know it rather than getting bogged down with novelty apps like certain other smartwatches we could mention.
READ MORE: Google Nexus 5 review
That's nice, so how does it work?
The best example is driving directions. If you turn it on, Google Now tracks your location data for a while and tries to learn where you should be. So if it knows that you're usually at work by 9am, it'll start throwing up information about the best route and how long it will take before you need to leave. So you glance at your phone screen – or, in the future, your smartwatch – your best route and time of departure should appear magically in front of your eyes.
That sounds amazing
Well, theoretically it does. Practically, as Google Now users know it doesn't always work like that. The chances are your phone spends the whole day telling you which way to drive home to miss the traffic, right up to the point when you get into the car. Just at the point that you actually need the kinds of hands-free easy access to this information, it'll switch to tell you the best way to get to the restaurant you visited a couple of weekends ago. Or worse, alert you to the fact it's a random stranger's birthday today – which Google thinks is important because you once included them in a Hangout.
That's not good
Let's just say there's still a lot work that needs doing before contextual search replaces traditional search. It's not helped by the fact that anyone you connect with on Google+ automatically gets onto your greetings card list, thus clogging up the data. Hence the investment in AI firms and quantum computers.
Wait a minute, how did you say Google knows where you need to be?
Simple. It's always listening (if you agree to the terms and conditions).Your phone doesn't need you to tell it you're at work – it uses the built-in GPS sensor. Your phone can also tell when you're running thanks to the accelerometer, so another application might be to fire up Zombies, Run! as soon as it detects you jogging.
The future, however, is going to be even more precise. Stores are lining up to sprinkle low energy Bluetooth transceivers all over the place that will work with Apple's iBeacon technology, which will make for precise geo-location indoors as well as out. What's more, because these iBeacons are reprogrammable contextual information no longer needs to be based on simple positioning. You might be reminded that you're running low on beans, for example, as you walk past a pile of tins on special in Asda.
Don't think Android and Windows Phone users (whoever you are) get let off either. Apple's iBeacons aren't the only internet of things tech in town – Philips is looking at putting something similar in in-store light bulbs. There is no escape.