Book Review – The Software Society, by William Meisel

I recently finished reading William Meisel’s book The Software Society. This is a very informative and interesting book written by a pioneer in the field of speech recognition.  It became clear as I read the book that Meisel is extremely knowledgeable about what makes computer software tick. He’s also an astute observer of current trends in both the consumer software market and enterprise systems.

The Software SocietyMeisel’s ambitious book is divided into two main sections. Part I addresses trends in technology, while Part II examines the impacts of these trends on society and the economy. It’s tough to do the book justice in a brief review like this. For that reason, I’ll focus primarily on Meisel’s exploration of current and future trends of personal assistants. First, though, I’ll try to provide a quick overview of some of the nuggets contained in the first section of the book.

Over the course of several chapters, Meisel introduces major trends driving the evolution of software today. These trends include rapidly increasing processing power, the pervasiveness of the Internet and cloud technologies, and the increasing dominance of Software as a Service over legacy forms of on-premise software applications. All of these trends are leading to the ubiquity of information. Not only is information available almost anywhere, but improved search technologies and better human-computer interfaces are making this information more readily accessible and useful.

Two major ideas that Meisel emphasizes are the importance of algorithms and modularity.

Algorithms allow computers to perform useful tasks that aid humans, such as speech recognition, other forms of pattern recognition, and recommending what book or movie we should buy next. As the complexity and utility of algorithms increases, software is able to outperform humans in ways that will have enormous impacts on society, many of which are positive, but some of which will inevitably be negative. (For an amusing overview of the power of algorithms, check out this video from the PBS Idea Channel).

Modularity enables software to increase in overall complexity in terms of what it can accomplish, while keeping programs and code manageable. By focusing functionality and algorithms in self-contained, reusable modules, programmers are able to quickly build new applications and focus testing and maintenance on isolated system components.

The power of algorithms and the benefits of modularity, Meisel postulates, contribute significantly to the current widespread success of software.

In Chapter 4, which is titled “The Nature of the Human-Computer Connection,” Meisel delves deeply into the concept of personal assistants. This chapter offers the best insight that I’ve found to-date into what personal assistants are, forecasts for how the technology will evolve, and thoughts and predictions about the future of the market from both a B2C as well as a B2B perspective.

Meisel coins the terms Personal Assistant Model (PAM) as well as Ubiquitous Personal Assistant (UAM). Meisel describes PAM as a “significant innovation in user interface design.” Personal assistants should be capable of understanding both speech and text input, communicating in a conversational fashion with their users, and interacting effectively with other personal assistants as needed to execute user tasks. Personal assistants are either specialized to carry out specific functions, or generalists that can field any inquiry and then coordinate with specialized personal assistants to complete the action. Interestingly, a press release issued recently by Artificial Solutions at the Mobile World Congress announces a platform that facilitates just this type of hand off between assistants. Meisel even suggests a set of web standards that could aid personal assistants in locating relevant content (perhaps akin to rich snippets mark-up that identifies categories of content).

A Ubiquitous personal assistant (UAM) maintains the same context and “personality” across multiple devices and platforms.  Like Samantha in the Spike Jonze movie Her, a UAM would present a cohesive personality to the user and retain context, personalization features, and knowledge of the user’s personal data regardless of where the interaction took place.

Privacy and security are two interrelated areas that gain in importance as personal assistants become increasingly pervasive and capable. Meisel devotes a separate chapter to this subject and examines current and future risks and potential mitigations.

Meisel speculates about the market for PAM and UAM technologies and about the type of companies that are likely to enter and thrive in that market. He postulates that large corporations with a strong existing market presence in intelligent personal assistant technologies, such as Apple and Google, will continue to dominate the overall market. He sees opportunities for smaller independent niche players such as Nuance as well.

Quick aside here:

In Jaron Lanier’s book “Who Owns the Future,” Lanier takes the position that power rests in the hands of those who serve up content, not in the hands of those who create content. Google, Facebook, and Twitter have each come out on top of a winner-takes-all game by creating platforms and supporting technologies that organize and deliver content. Content itself is a low-cost, or even free commodity. Will the winners of the imminent personal assistant gold rush be companies that provide the underlying technology and infrastructure for assistants? Or will providers and owners of the content that gets served up by personal assistants (including facts, data, knowledge, fiction, art, jokes, quizzes, and so on) have a shot at the riches? Only time will tell, but current trends aren’t on the side of the contect creators.

The second part of Meisel’s book addresses the economic and social impacts of computer intelligence and the increasing sphere of automation.  As Marc Andreessen wrote in his now often repeated quote from 2011, software is eating the world. Meisel fears that this phenomenon will lead to a future of structural unemployment. He’s courageous enough to propose several possible solutions. For those interested in how we might survive in a post-scarcity society where traditional jobs are few and far between, there are also interesting suggestions in James S. Albus’s book “Path to a Better World.” Jaron Lanier’s ideas in “Who Owns the Future” are worth considering too.

This is a great book for anyone looking to gain more insight into the rapidly evolving world of software. It’s especially applicable if you’re interested in the future of the human-computer connection, including voice recognition and personal assistant / virtual agent technologies.