With Apple’s recent announcement of iPhone 11, many critics were disappointed by the missing innovativeness and incremental improvements. However, Apple – despite their recent incremental steps – is undeniably one of the companies that shaped our understanding of technology, user-experience, and branding ever since they launched the Macintosh.
In 1987, – a decade after Apple’s incorporation – then Apple-CEO John Sculley wrote his book Odyssey, where he described a fictive computer called the “Knowledge Navigator”, his vision for the personal computer of the 21st century.
In this article, we’ll take a look at his predictions, and whether these remain fictive scenarios or became reality.
Standing on the shoulders of giants: Looking back to understand where we’re now
“Study the past, if you would divine the future” – it’s almost cliché to argue with a quote from Confucius, but we can’t phrase it any better. In technology, we oftentimes forget that we’re building on foundations laid decades ago. Voice interaction, which is something that feels like a recent achievement and breakthrough of the last couple of years, started in the mid 20th century – almost 60 to 70 years ago!
To give you one example: in 1962, IBM presented the first-ever device that recognized spoken language, called the IBM Shoebox. Admittedly, it only understood 16 words and the numbers 0 to 9, but what an incredible achievement! For context: In 1962, The Beatles recorded their very first album, and Germany had only 1 TV-channel.
The Knowledge Navigator: Your personal assistant from 1987
John Sculley served as Apple’s CEO from 1983 until 1993. Prior to Apple, he was the youngest ever president of PepsiCo – and Steve Job’s famously recruited him as Apple CEO with his pitch:
“Do you want to sell sugared water for the rest of your life? Or do you want to come with me and change the world?”.Steve Jobs to John Sculley
In the epilogue of the book “Odyssey” published in 1987 – which is 2 years prior to the invention of the World Wide Web –, he described the “Knowledge Navigator”. Inspired by the work of Vannevar Bush and Alan Kay, the Knowledge Navigator was a smart device connected to a global knowledge network, which enables his users to communicate with anyone in the world, and is connected to hyper-contextual information databases. The Knowledge Navigator would autonomously connect the dots between seemingly unrelated topics, and use virtual agents to discover and enrich information.
A bow-tied virtual assistant on a tablet-style computer
A group of Apple employees – including Bud Colligan (who eventually co-founded Macromedia and served as partner at the VC Accel Partners) and Hugh Dubberly (who later became VP of Design at Netscape) – and scientists (such as Computer scientist and Apple-fellow Adam Kay who provided advice) produced several concept videos showcasing that very vision. You can still find some of them on YouTube:
They feature a professor who talks to his computer to perform everyday tasks and academic research, on a device that is – albeit a bit chunky – rather similar to a tablet computer. Again, way ahead of the time, the video portrays a future-scenario in which computers take off the workload of humans and use voice as an interface.
- A summary of notifications by the AI-assistant
- A daily summary of upcoming meetings and appointments
- Navigational search queries such as “show last year’s lecture notes” and “pull up all new articles I haven’t read yet”
- Creating summaries of articles and profiles
- Contact persons on behalf of the user
- Video-calls with screen-sharing and collaborative working
- Combining various data sources to create statistics
The video was presented by Sculley at Educom in 1987, the leading conference for higher education and college computers, in his keynote, where he addressed the future of computers and technology from Apple’s and his point of view: Computers blending into our lives, capable of accessing, processing and understanding data.
Five key-technology predictions for Knowledge Navigator
In his talks and book, Sculley describes five key-technologies for intelligent systems such as the Knowledge Navigator:
- Advanced communication technologies to connect computers, databases, and information globally and make them accessible to users in broad ways.
- Real-time animation in 3D, in order to calculate and visualize complex models, mainly affected by computing power.
- Improved database technologies as key-element for shared and collective information systems.
- Hypermedia as the combination of text, images, voice and video in order to assist future computer-users intuitively and guide them through complex information and processes.
- Artificial Intelligence as key-enabler for virtual assistants and agents, which know, recognize and learn personal preferences and suggest strategies for becoming more productive.
From today’s point of view, many of these seem obvious and are already available – but then again, remember that in 1987, the idea of the World Wide Web was not developed until two years later, when Tim Berners-Lee presented his idea in 1989 to CERN.
Too far ahead of time and technology?
The discussions around the Knowledge Navigator and the dozen or so technology-prediction videos that followed were heated, especially in the field of human-computer interaction. The major criticism was that the Knowledge Navigator is an unrealistic portrayal of the abilities and capacities of any software agent, thus setting the expectations way too high. Critics claimed that in the foreseeable and even distant future, technology won’t be able to deliver anywhere close to these “promises”. Especially the human-likeness of the interaction was said to create a misleading concept and idea of future human-computer interaction.
The Knowledge Navigator’s impact on today’s AI-assistants
Despite the criticism, the Knowledge Navigator had major impacts on today’s AI-assistants and the developments in the fields of human-computer interaction, AI, and technology prediction.
Is this the desired form of computer interaction?
The video led to discussions within and outside of Apple, whether the presented form of computer interaction is at all the most desirable form and evolution of computers. This questions and concern was also raised by Alan Kay, who asked:
“The main question here is not is this technology probable but is this the way we want to use technology?”Alan Kay
These discussions led to product developments such as the Apple Newton, a Personal Digital Assistant (PDA) that eventually failed as technology wasn’t living up to the expectation.
Today, however, the concerns regarding whether this form of interaction is desirable, appear to be erased: Voice is now one of the frontiers of human-computer interactions.
Voice as interface
“So being able to speak and get natural responses the metaphor of a human personality in the computer… certainly, that’s one of the big directions that computers will go.”Steve Wozniak
Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak predicted in a follow-up video to the Knowledge Navigator, that natural language and voice will be one of the “big directions”, and this is exactly where we’re headed to.
Did Knowledge Navigator even inspire Siri?
According to a NY Times article, the demonstration of Apple’s Knowledge Navigator inspired several developers and researchers to dive into the field of virtual agents – including Tom Gruber and Adam Cheyer, who started research on AI, knowledge sharing, and virtual assistants at SRI International.
Their work at SRI International resulted in a spin-off: Cheyer and Gruber co-founded Siri inc, the company which created Siri and was acquired by Apple in 2010. Siri now serves as Apple’s intelligent personal assistant and knowledge navigator on iOS and macOS.
According to Sculley, Knowledge Navigator could be used on any device, and was talking via synthetic (i.e. computer-generated) speech-output: The assistant was supposed to be used on PDAs, Desktop computers or even wearable in clothing. This prediction is now reflected in multi-modal interfaces and intelligent systems that enable interaction where the user is present: Whether that’s the Alexa approach with Smart speakers in your home and apps for “on the go”, or our AI-assistant Neo who assists employees on any given device – wherever work happens and interaction is beneficial for the user.
Are we never gonna get there?
Tom Gruber left Apple after Siri was acquired and he headed the advanced development. To this day, he is skeptical of any technological breakthrough in the near future enabling a human-like understanding:
“When you get a question and you don’t know what domain it’s in, then you have this very complicated problem of massive ambiguity.”Tom Gruber
Understanding commands is easy, understanding conversations is hard
Although Alexa and other systems do a good-enough job in understanding simple queries and questions, several Stanford researchers argue that these systems won’t be able to deal with the “real” complexity and context-sensitivity a human-interaction comes along with – although Amazon famously employs thousands of employees for training and developing Alexa.
A step towards the Knowledge Navigator: Neo
Whilst the criticism of the late 1980s regarding the Knowledge Navigator appears to have vanished, the Knowledge Navigator still shows a concept that appears to be somewhat ahead of time in specific use-cases, even in 2019, a decade after the movie was ought to be set in.
Other use-cases of Knowledge Navigator are possible with today’s virtual assistants and technology, such as intelligent summaries of texts and tasks, as well as natural language search queries and commands.
With our AI-assistant Neo, we do share the very same vision of the Knowledge Navigator: Enabling us to delegate tasks to computers in a natural way, so that they can take over redundant and mundane tasks while we focus on work that generates value and purpose.