How the smartest tech companies plan to autocomplete our lives


Amazon’s new anticipatory shipping patent may be more revolutionary than drone delivery. (Joe Klamar/Getty Images)

Just like Google autocompletes our search requests, the biggest tech companies appear to be looking to autocomplete our thoughts and actions in ways that almost seem like science fiction. It’s not just that companies such as Amazon and Google know what your tastes and preferences are, they are now able to act on them in the real world by delivering real products and services.

Consider, for example, that Amazon received a patent in December for something called “anticipatory shipping.” In short, Amazon figures out that you’ve been looking at an item on its Web site and already starts the shipping process so that the item will arrive at your door perhaps hours after you’ve actually added it to your shopping cart and clicked “buy.” (Or, in a really futuristic concept, it might actually arrive before you click buy, if you’re the type of person who lingers for hours over customer reviews.)  It’s all part of removing one of the pain points of the online shopping process — the long wait between the time you buy and the time you receive the actual product. If Amazon’s right, then the whole “pre-shipment” concept could be even more revolutionary than the delivery-by-drones concept.

Or, consider that Google has patented a geolocation technology for linking ads to free or discounted taxi rides to a restaurant, shop or entertainment venue that advertises on Google. Consider the following hypothetical: You’re thinking of going to a restaurant, but it’s raining outside, so you decide to  just order take-out — but then you notice an ad on Google for a free taxi ride to a nearby restaurant. Would you go? This concept, of course, is even more relevant, given that Google has invested in Uber and has pioneered the concept of the autonomous car. Now you can imagine this patented technology being used by Google to deliver Uber rides or driverless cars to restaurant-goers and shoppers. Once Google has your location, it can start offering specific services tailored to your GPS coordinates.

All of this goes way beyond what we thought was the future just a few years ago — the “semantic Web.” According to the earliest conceptions of the semantic Web, it would soon be possible to know enough about you to deliver the right content at the right time to the right user, thanks to the ability for all data across the Web to “talk” to each other. Tim Berners-Lee has referred to this as the “next Web” and some have called it “Web 3.0.” In our everyday lives, this dream of data talking to each other has already come true. We now have relevant banner ads displayed right next to the text we’re reading, curiously creepy e-mails that seem to know what we’ve been reading and talking about, and  the whole genre of “social ads,” where your friends appear to be endorsing specific products and services on Facebook.

While some of this new technology sounds gloriously disruptive, it also holds the potential for a lot of misunderstandings. In many ways, it seems like “Minority Report” and the concept of “pre-crime.” In the Tom Cruise movie, a man is wrongly suspected of a “pre-crime” and has no way to prove his innocence of something he has never done (or plans to do). In your everyday life, of course, you wouldn’t be accused of a pre-crime — but you might find your front porch piling up with boxes of items you never intended to order, or cars parked outside of your house, engines idling, just waiting to take you for a ride.

What’s interesting about all of this “autocomplete” business is that the most valuable Internet companies will be those that can act on our lives in the real world by delivering physical products and services. It’s a lot more valuable to know that someone enjoys a certain type of book – and then ships that book to a person – than it is to use that knowledge just to throw up some social ads about new book releases. That might place pressure on a company such as Facebook — which already knows so much about our everyday connections — to start acquiring companies that can offer what Amazon and Google promise to be able to do one day.

Disclosure: Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos owns the Washington Post.

Dominic Basulto is a futurist and blogger based in New York City.
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