Dave Lee at SXSW: AI should help us do less, not more

A sign saying "SXSW 2017"
Image caption This year's South by Southwest (SXSW) has a lot of focus on artificial intelligence (AI)

When I think of having an assistant, I'm always drawn to that slightly Hollywood portrayal of a top chief executive, pouring himself a stiff drink, leaning back in his leather chair and pressing the intercom.

"Mary," he'll say. "Please handle my calls. Only disturb me if it's urgent."

It's a bygone era, sure - and a gender stereotype, no doubt - but that dream of having an assistant, one that truly helps you out with daily tasks, is still prevalent. In fact, we're told it's the future of computing - with all the top companies firing up their research divisions to work on the concept. So far, it's Siri, Alexa, Google and Cortana leading the way.

But none of those assistants actually assist you, do they? Not in a "take this load off my mind" kind of way, at least.

This week I'm lucky enough to be at South by Southwest - SXSW - a three-part festival that deals with tech, music and film. Much of the focus this year will be on artificial intelligence - AI - and how it needs to evolve to become more useful and accepted. The sessions will look at how AI can be smart enough to help us achieve more and more.

But really, all I want is for new tech to help me do less.

Nudge nudge nudge

Have you ever counted how many notifications you get on your smartphone on a typical day? I have. It's horrifying. More than 100 interruptions a day from Facebook likes, Instagram comments, tweet replies, news alerts, text messages, WhatsApp messages, Slack messages… oh my. I can't get a word in edgeways round here, and it's all my fault.

Or is it? I may have sleepwalked into this notification hell, but I was having my hand held throughout it all by the companies desperate for my attention. Every social network, large or small, is after for one thing: engagement. More users, more of the time. And notifications is their surefire way of dragging you back into their apps, time and time again.

It's a lucrative strategy - part of Snapchat's popularity with investors right now is not because of how much money it's making (none) or how many users it has (not that many), but because of incredible statistics that show the average Snapchat user opens the app at least 10 times a day.

Image caption Apps can end up sending dozens of notifications a day in an attempt to get users attention

And it's no fluke. In the dark arts of nudging users to breaking point, Snapchat is the Grand High Witch. By default, not only does it tell you when you have a message, it also tells you when you're about to be sent one. "Dave is typing…" it will beep - as if being up-to-date these days requires you to know about messages before they even exist.

Naturally, you open the app; up goes their engagement, and down goes your concentration, your focus, your social etiquette.

Snapchat isn't the only one, of course, and you can turn off notifications manually should you want. But it's at this point your sense of FOMO - Fear Of Missing Out - goes into overdrive. It's a deliberate, emotional tug pulled by app makers, and many push you into a choice between getting all notifications, or none.

Of course one solution to this overwhelming feeling is what people like to refer to as a "digital detox" - a clumsy, cliched term most often pushed by PR companies trying to get clients on to morning radio shows or, worse, from journalists sorely lacking in ideas.

I've always found the outcomes to be pointlessly predictable. You gave up Facebook for a week, you say? Big whoop. Have a sticker.

Manual labour

But this week I read a refreshing view on this issue from Alex Wood. Alex's approach was not to go cold turkey, but instead to implement a few tweaks here and there to regulate use. I'd suggest reading his piece if you want to learn what software he used and other interesting tips.

Image copyright PA
Image caption Snapchat is popular with investors because of how much users open the app

By the time he concluded his piece, he'd managed to disconnect himself sufficiently to feel liberated - but not to the point of being cut off from his friends or profession.

It's an issue also dealt with by another reporter, Kristen Brown, who last year held a panel at an event organised by Fusion, the tech news and culture site that has recently (sadly) been swallowed up into Gizmodo.

One of her suggestions was to hide all the apps on your smartphone into a big folder, so the only practical way to access the was to use the search function. This added step in theory made you focus on what you really needed to do - and put an end to that habit of just idly tapping from app to app.

But what stood out - for both Kristen and Alex - was how difficult the process was. Given technology constantly provides us with smart user interfaces and automation, turning off notifications remains a frustrating manual task - an intentionally fiddly process of ducking through menus, and then, assuming you want them back at some point, going through those menus once again, hopefully remembering what exactly it was you turned off.

If digital assistants go the way of notifications, we're in even more trouble. Notifications won't just be buzzing our pockets, but filling our air with noise.

There is value in that, but after pondering the struggle Alex went through to temporarily silence his digital life, I feel a truly intelligent assistant would be more like Mary, the Hollywood chief exec's assistant.

Why can't I tell Alexa that I want to focus right now, and it should instruct my social networks to chill out - notifications will stop, messages will be reduced.

Image caption Dave Lee hopes to find a company to make his life easier at SXSW

Today, asking Siri to "handle my calls" prompts it to bring up a call history. Perhaps instead it should be able to intercept my incoming calls, ask the caller if it's urgent, and only then disturb me if needed.

The iPhone already has a Do Not Disturb function, but it's a bit of a blunt instrument when it comes to filtering out - or letting in - things that are truly worth your time. There are a smattering of apps that help you regulate your time on networks or websites. But it's too cumbersome, and only gets the job half done.

Sadly, it's not in any tech firm's interests to lessen the amount of time you spend interacting with your technology - so progress in this area may be slow. But as I take on the corridors of SXSW this week, I'll be cheering on any company that wants to genuinely make my life easier.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC and on Facebook. You can reach Dave securely through encrypted messaging app Signal on: +1 (628) 400-7370

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