DENVER, CO. — A fundamental shift is occurring in software, and it has profound implications for software developers and those of us who use software (FYI: that’s everybody.) If today you develop apps and fail to adapt to this change, you will find yourself losing consumers who demand increased productivity and more efficient ways to use technology. Companies providing software that leverage traditional SaaS tech stacks will be left in the dust if they do not adapt to a new wave of software integrated with interactive artificial intelligence. We are at the dawn of the age of the intelligent agent.
This rising generation of software will catapult us from the age of passive Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) programs, largely driven by user input, to proactive intelligent agents that will allow people to interact with software in a more human way. Imagine a day, where from the time you rise to when you hit the pillow, your interactions involve a mix of humans and intelligent agents who engage with you to make your life productive, efficient, and full of joy.
The delivery of software to customers has changed dramatically since the inception of the personal computer, and the velocity of change has never been faster. In the early days, software was either built-in or accessed through floppy discs and CDs, but that quickly evolved with the advent of the Internet. The more ubiquitous and faster the Internet became, the more SaaS based products became available and popular. As mobile computing expanded, the “app” was born and fit software into our pockets. These innovations gave rise to a huge number of startups, some of which became the world’s most successful companies.
The SaaS and app models have since saturated the market, and it is extremely challenging to break in as a startup using these development paradigms. We have passed the zenith of these software models, at least as they exist today as independent entities. Using these models, there is a diminishing return of what new companies can offer customers, because the models are limited in how they deliver value. Becoming number one in an app store or software niche takes enormous ingenuity and resources. It is likely we are witnessing the tail end of the bell curve for SaaS products. That is not to say SaaS will suddenly disappear, but I posit that its independent existence is waning.
That is not to say SaaS will suddenly disappear, but I posit that its independent existence is waning.
A new frontier for startups
Where does this leave the opportunity for the entrepreneur and how can startups deliver more value to consumers? A hint of the answer came in 2011 when Apple launched Siri and IBM’s Watson beat his opponents at Jeopardy. Since then, Siri’s abilities have largely been relegated to search, and Watson took a few years to build a mature API for developers to work with. Most importantly, these innovations popularized the idea that software could interact with us in a very human way.
Competitors to Apple and IBM have since introduced intelligent agents to the market, notably Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. You may think with dominant companies like these it leaves little room for startups but you’d be wrong (at least in the short term). IBM invests heavily in marketing Watson to demonstrate the myriad ways that he can be used for practical purposes. These consumer-facing agents are only the beginning of what will become a more and more specialized industry in the next few years. Herein lies the chance for the entrepreneur to take the lead, and the danger for incumbents whose software does not adapt.
A.I. is the new UX
William Gibson is credited with saying, “the future is already here — it’s just not very evenly distributed.” This is certainly true of A.I. and intelligent agents. Until recently, A.I. was largely relegated to the background of software with a few notable exceptions. For the most part, end users typically are either unaware of the A.I. or simply have no way to interact with it directly. By this I mean, that consumers have not been able to connect with the A.I. through natural human communication.
The primary ways that humans communicate with each other, technologically speaking, include email, text messaging, apps like Slack, and social media among others. With advancements in natural language processing and machine learning, developers can now extend traditional UX design to the intelligent agent and reach people where they communicate the most often. Apps should be designed to come to the customer, not the other way around.
Paraphrasing, an acquaintance on mine stated is this way, “A.I. is the new UX.” I could not agree more. This opens a new realm for creative development and a new way to deliver value for customers. Following A.I. as UX principles, there should be an inverse relationship between how often a user needs to proactively interact with software to derive value from it. Intelligent agents that can learn the needs of users, align with their goals and foresee opportunities, and reduce the need for humans to mine value from the software. This is now the purview of the intelligent agent.
Get in now
As amazing as the A.I. advancements have been in the last few years, we’re still in the early stages of this industry. Do not expect the pace of innovation to slow, it is only going to gain momentum. Waiting until there is a well-defined path to developing intelligent agents is a recipe for extinction. Instead, forge the path, pick a vertical and be the leader that brings the technology to consumers.
Taking my own advice, at Echovo, we are actively testing our new social media assistant Laila. Laila’s goal is to manage the details of your social media efforts so you can focus on the big picture. Laila’s clients can interact with her email like any other human. We concentrate on giving Laila skillsets that would otherwise be too cost prohibitive in a traditional operation. She’s capable of analyzing vast amounts of data in ways that are difficult for people and can deliver individually customized requests almost instantaneously. In this way, we enhance human productivity through collaboration with A.I.
No one knows exactly when the full shift to intelligent agents will happen, but I expect that it will be sooner than we think. A.I. and intelligent agents are the future of software, but they also represent an opportunity for creative expression in a field that is ripe for innovation. We are nearing an inflection point where the exponential curve will explode and the market will quickly get saturated. Do not be caught off guard by the amazing new adventure and the dawn of the intelligent agent.