Smartphones Have Feelings

Decades ago, cellular phones were like obedient canines. They were faithful. They would run out of juice when you don’t feed them and would light up when they see you. When I had a simple Nokia phone, I was happy. It did not misbehave with me, and was generally predictable. Its state depended on how I treated it. I could soak it in water, and it would dry up and start working in a few hours. My uncle dropped his 3310, and it was as if something gradually grazed it; not even one bit of hurt.

A smartphone on the other hand, is like your first newborn child. It may not always be responsive and requires more juice than you can provide. But it learns like a child. These days a phone can surprise you in ways you would not imagine. If I check the score of some game played between two random teams in my phone browser, it shows me results of other games, in hope that I would appreciate it. It can automatically arrange stuff for you, and keep your memory intact. It lets you do much more than a normal phone allows you to, and has become more than just a fancy commodity you just cannot do without.

Smartphones have feelings
A smartphone that feels.

A friend of mine argues that smartness requires one to think by themselves. As such, phones being called smart is a joke. Phones only do what you tell them to. Even when they tend to do things you are not expecting, all of it has been programmed, and they are doing nothing on their own accord. Autofocus, predictive search, predictive results, behavioural understanding, and suggestions based on behavioural understanding are all part of what the phone has been designed to do. Where is the so called smartness then?

By definition, smartness is having or showing intelligence, which is the ability to acquire, understand and use knowledge. Human beings are able to process data into information, store it, and use it at a later time. It can be as simple as your wife remembering what you said 5 years ago on a boring day, at an inconsequential time, and then bringing it back in a conversation to awe and frustrate you, or it can be as complex as learning chemistry for the first time. Computers however, have to be fed data and have to be told how to use it. The only work they can do by themselves is to store the given data and retrieve it back.

Can you teach a computer how to think? This question has always boggled me. As a human being who knows that the computer is a machine, it sounds ridiculous. But as a computer programmer, it’s a world brimming with possibility. There are mainly two aspects to this, teaching a computer how to save the data in a meaningful manner based on the type of data supplied, and having it retrieve the data based on the type of query supplied. The secret ingredient in all of this is having the computer memorize this lesson of saving and retrieving data in a specific manner, and having it apply the same the next time you want the said data. So in a way, you’re incepting a behaviour in a computer’s memory. Without getting into too much detail, let’s just say that Artificial Intelligence has all of this covered. And although full fledged AI has its own separate branch, the basics of AI are used in almost all software applications these days.

The funny thing is this is exactly how we teach our children. We teach them behaviors; we just don’t have to code them in their minds. There is that extra effort involved with computers. But the bigger claim still holds; you can emulate smartness in a computer, and you can give it the ability to understand and record certain behaviours and then use them appropriately based on choices, which themselves can be programmed into its memory.

Recently, I had booked a flight from Bombay to Bangalore from a popular online booking service. They sent me an email to my gmail account. The minute I opened the mail, my phone processed it without me even having to tell it about the flight. On the day of the flight, I got an automatic reminder 3 hours prior about the pending flight. As I was reaching the airport, I got a reminder about which flight terminal the flight was leaving from, how the weather was, and if the flight was on time. In this entire process, never even once did I had to intimate anything to my phone, and it still had the courtesy of reminding me.

So suppose your context is a conversation about catching up with someone the next day at 9; if you long tap the home key, Google now will analyse the context and “smartly” ask you if you need a reminder next day at 8. Incidentally, that is also what your brain would do; register a mental reminder automatically. There are many such examples where this new feature might prove extremely handy. Technology is progressing at a rapid pace, and phones are becoming “smarter”.

Can Smartphones really have feelings? That’s akin to the ‘Android and the future of the human race’ debate. And it’s questionable to how useful will it be, if smartphones have feelings. If your smartphone could replace your friend in the future, is it a good or bad thing? In my opinion, the day man stops socialising in favour of gadgets, that will signal the end of humanity. That is one of the reasons why AI looms as a possible threat for our future. But, at the same time, I would like to end this article with the following transcript –

  • *Dial a call to Rahul*
  • *Phone answers*
  • Phone – I’m sorry, but Rahul is either away or busy right now. Is it okay if I give him a missed call alert and tell him to contact you later?
  • Caller – No, I need to speak with him now.
  • Phone – Oh, is it urgent?
  • Caller – Yes.
  • phone – Okay. I’ll keep ringing in order for him to notice that it might be important. At the same time i’ll message one of his colleagues and inform him to remind you.
  • Caller – Okay.
  • Phone – Is it a medical emergency?
  • Caller – No it’s something personal.
  • Phone – I’m only a phone after all. You can either leave a voice message or a text message about it. That ways he’ll see it faster.
  • Caller – No thanks. I want to speak with him personally.
  • Phone – Okay sure. Bye.