Smartphones overstate their social intelligence

Written by New York Times | New York | Updated: Aug 21 2014, 15:17pm hrs
SmartphoneWith access to our calendars, contacts and location, phones should be able to communicate with great intelligence, but often buzz at just the wrong time.
When a smartphone app wants to alert you to a coming appointment, a text message or some bit of breaking news from your social network, it sends a tiny flare that lights up your phones lock screen. Depending on how youve set it up, the app might then buzz your pocket like a manic bee, sound a citywide panic alarm or begin playing La Cucaracha.

When they were first introduced, these so-called push notifications were a creative way to let our phones get our attention; now that they buzz every few seconds, they are a constant annoyance. And the glut of notifications is just one example of a growing problem with our smartphones: They are not smart enough.

Like a bumbling concierge, your phone often tries to assist you without pausing to consider any of the basic information it collects about your life. For instance, your phone has access to your calendar, and it also knows your physical location. So why isnt it smarter about sending you the right notification at the right timefor instance, not during a first date Why cant it prioritise alerts from your wife and your boss over notifications for tweets from your high school pals

Your smartphone is the information clearinghouse of your life; it knows more about you than your spouse, your dermatologist and even your favourite national intelligence agency. Yet your phone often behaves as if it knows nothing, with each app, and the entire operating system, blithely disregarding information that should be useful in determining how to help.

Once you begin thinking about your phones stupidity, its hard to stop. Look at its address book. Why are the names arranged alphabetically rather than in order of the people you interact with most frequently, or the people youre likely to interact with today

Or consider the calendar. Given all that your phone knows about how you spend your daywhere you are, where youre going next and how youre procrastinating why cant it suggest the best time for you to tackle each item on your to-do list

The good news is that some of this seems to be happening, slowly. As my colleague Molly Wood wrote in May, start-ups have lately been creating a new breed of programs known as contextual apps. These aim to process information about how you use your phone to improve how it worksfor instance, by arranging the icons on your home screen according to which apps you use most often, or at certain times of the day.

One example is Humin, a much-buzzed-about contextual program me thats making its debut in Apples App Store this week. Humin is an intelligent replacement for your iPhones dialer and contacts programme. The app sorts your contact list according to a variety of factors, including how frequently you connect with people, how well you know them and your location. If youve just landed in New York for a business trip, you can load up Humin to see pictures of the people youll be meeting on your trip.

Most of this is done automatically. Humin mines the data already on your phone and on various social networks to create its intelligent contacts, so it can determine, without your having to instruct it, how well you know each of your friends, and where you met this person or that. The result is an intriguing glimpse of the future of the smartphone; its as if your phone suddenly sprouted common sense.

Yet while contextual apps like Humin can be useful, I suspect that they arent enough to combat the routine, generalised idiocy displayed by our phones.

- Farhad Manjoo