When people imagine machine learning, they tend to think about talking cars or humanoid robots—the stuff of sci-fi fantasy, or else dystopian fiction. But machine learning is neither, and it's already changing what computers can do. In the near future anyway, it's going to transform the way we work—starting with that smartphone in your pocket.
Programs that can learn how to accomplish tasks are already at play in the workplace, where they're taking on an ever greater share of our most energy-sapping, mundane chores so we humans have more time for the important stuff.
That's nowhere more evident that on mobile, where our smartphones are transforming into personal assistants. Soon, mobile productivity won’t just be about getting notifications, setting reminders, or scheduling meetings on the go.
Software powered by machine learning will help our devices understand how we operate, anticipate our needs, and pave the way for a more productive (and hopefully more pleasant) workday. Those little luxuries usually reserved for high-powered executives will soon be available to the rest of us. Here are three of them.
Right now, your smartphone can tell you where there's traffic on your commute. It can remind you about that big meeting coming up this afternoon. And it can help you sift through your hideous, overflowing inbox. In other words, it can transmit and organize information for you, to a pretty extensive but still limited degree.
What your smartphone can't do yet, though, is reliably predict events and respond to them effectively. Imagine your phone senses that you’re running late for a meeting, so it calls a ride for you and pings your colleagues with an updated ETA. Later, you’re heading into a daily meeting, and on your walk over your device puts the relevant documents at your fingertips and automatically starts taking notes when you get there.
Or you know those expense reports your accounting team keeps emailing you about filing? What if there were a mobile app that automatically populates your monthly report and asks if you want to submit it the day before it’s due?
Your smartphone is already portable and equipped with geolocation capabilities. Building off those features, it will soon be able to not just detect where you are but deliver what you need at that time and place better than any other device can. You'll no longer need to search or wait for information—it will find you, then let you take action in ways you probably never thought possible on a handheld screen.
So even if it isn't that you'll never be late or disorganized again, you'll never have as good an excuse to be. With enough time, your smartphone might even learn how to get that hot cup of coffee delivered right to that 9 a.m. meeting.
One day, we’ll look back at the workstation and the 9-to-5 work schedule and wonder how we got anything done. People travel more for work than ever before and have greater flexibility to work remotely. For better or worse, we're "always on." Products driven by machine learning will free us from having to choose between flexibility and productivity, from the C-suite all the way down.
Voice transcription, powered by deep learning on neural networks, will fix your grammatical errors more accurately than ever on the fly. In fact, they'll soon let you do business entirely by speech—no need for a sprawling keyboard or even a screen. Related improvements in input capabilities across all your devices will continue to make everything simpler, from setting up meetings and preparing presentations to organizing files and posting job ads.
And let’s not forget email. Right now, it's pretty annoying to send lengthy responses on a small screen, but what if software could automatically sort and highlight your most important messages, then predict and generate responses for you? Some of this is already possible today; further advances will let you be even more responsive and stay connected without tethering you so closely to a rectangular slice of glass.
You use your smartphone to figure out the tip on your brunch bill and divide it up based on who ordered the extra Bloody Mary. But tomorrow, we'll use our mobile devices to perform much more complicated, high-value computations. Machine learning will make it easier to process and organize external information for work—whether that's closing sales, generating reports, or changing your marketing budget in real time, from any device.
As machine learning unlocks valuable skills such as data analysis and makes them available to anyone, smartphones will be an order of magnitude more powerful for those closest to any business challenge. Your phone will become a much more efficient and decisive problem solver.
Machine learning isn’t science fiction—it’s already here, in many products and features available today. And while there's plenty of work still to be done—and no shortage of skeptics—the direction we're heading in is pretty clear. The software and apps of the future promise to keep assignments from falling through the cracks, let us work from just about anywhere, and make better decisions with the aid of analyzed data.
These changes will be gradual, and not every new development will succeed perfectly at first, but their cumulative effect on how we work will be profound, particularly on mobile. Machine learning is about to have its defining moment. Once it does, there’s no going back.
Rich Rao leads the global Android, Chrome, and education businesses within Google for Work. He's passionate about Google's efforts to transform how we learn and work.