All Roads Lead to Rome

I finally watched Ex Machina this weekend (and recommend it highly). Science fiction retains a unique power to bring elements of the future to life in a way that a dry forecast (ahem) never could. In the movie, an eccentric billionaire founder of the world’s leading search engine (Bluebox!) creates a super-powerful artificial intelligence (AI) and installs it into a sexy Android played by Alicia Vikander. Problems ensue. Regardless of what one thinks of the movie, writer and director Alex Garland’s hypothesis that AI will arise out of something like Google (and not a secret government lab) is right on the money.

Why does it matter, and what does any of this have to do with the future of TV? Two things.

1. All Computing Problems of Sufficient Scale Converge to AI
If I had a FAQ (frequently-asked questions) page for my work as a future-of-TV analyst over the past several years, one of the questions right up at the top would be why I group Amazon, Apple, Google, and Microsoft together into my so-called ‘Big 4’ (or with Facebook, the ‘Big 5’). Paraphrasing two of the most common formulations: (1) aren’t these companies in fundamentally different businesses, and (2) does it even matter since “content is still king”?

I used to try and explain this in terms of technology ecosystems. The Big 5 creates and controls global technology platforms — hardware, software, advertising, and commerce — on which the rest of us rely. This is true whether ‘us’ implies you and I as individuals, or huge content companies like Disney or Viacom. Each of the Big 5 companies has more than a billion users (in a world of 7.3 billion people), which is undoubtedly an exclusive club.

What that explanation misses, however, is the true meaning and impact of billion-user scale. Each of the Big 5 obviously started out with a different mission. Google catalogs the world’s information. Apple sells the world’s coolest devices. Amazon is the world’s largest e-commerce store. Microsoft powers the world’s offices and enterprises. Facebook is the world’s social network. So what do they have in common? They all depend on and produce ‘Big Data’ on an almost unimaginable scale.

Google (to take just one example) processes over one trillion (with a ‘t’) search requests per year. Facebook now holds over two trillion user posts. In other words, at sufficient scale (1) all technology problems turn into machine-learning problems; and (2) all machine-learning problems turn into AI problems. The implications of this are profound, but for today let’s stick with one practical conclusion. The Big 5 (individually and collectively as a group) are overwhelming favorites to win the planet-wide race to develop and deploy AI.

2. The Future of the UI is AI
Interesting, you say, but what does this have to do with TV? Plenty. The GUI (graphical user interface) era is more than three decades old now (dating back to the original Apple Macintosh in 1984, if not further). We have all grown up interacting with icons on screens as our principal way of dealing with digital technology. See-and-select has been the basic paradigm, whether we’re talking about a 1990’s grid guide for an MVPD or a today’s HBO app.

Going forward, however, the interface will become conversational. Like the original computer on Star Trek, a sufficiently powerful AI needs no visual interface. The GUI simply disappears. Each of the Big 5 has an AI-powered virtual agent in the market today: Amazon (Alexa), Apple (Siri), Facebook (M), Google (Ok Google), and Microsoft (Cortana). These virtual assistants are diffusing rapidly and becoming smarter by the day. Folks who use them know they are already superior to GUIs in many ways for music (“Hey Siri, play dance music.”). It is inevitable that they will become a top-level entry point for TV as well. (“Ok Google, are the Warriors playing?”)

And while voice interfaces are important, it’s not the only place AI plays a role. Machine-learning algorithms (i.e., AI) already power your Netflix queue and your Facebook feed, determining to a great extent what you see (or, in the case of conservative political causes, apparently don’t see).

I still hear MVPDs and content companies alike talking about “owning the user experience.” Don’t kid yourself. The future of the user experience is AI. And the future of AI (for better or worse) is firmly in the hands of the Big 5.

Stick with TDG and stay ahead of the curve.

Joel is a Senior Advisor for TDG and serves as an advisor and Board Member to the video ecosystem and technology companies. He lives near Seattle, WA.