I’ve seen the future

Well it’s October and that means that Halloween is just around the corner. What better time to pull out the crystal ball (which looks suspiciously like a Lava Lamp in my case), put on my swami turban and do my Karnak the Magnificent impression. That’s right, it’s time to predict . . . the . . . future.

But seriously – a year ago at a self-service conference in San Diego, someone in the audience asked a panel of industry representatives I sat on, “Where do you see self-service in fifteen years?”Fifteen years!? I can’t predict what I’ll have for breakfast tomorrow. I was lucky enough to be the last of four to respond so I had some time to make something up. I didn’t give the distant future much thought after that. That is until last week when I saw the following question on a Request for Proposal (RFP) from a prospective customer: “Where do you see the knowledge management industry in five years?” OK, it’s not fifteen, it’s only five but still that’s a long time in a field so intertwined and interdependent with information technology. Just look at the advances that have been made in computing in general, and search and database technology in particular in the last ten years. Now consider that the rate of advancement is not linear but rather it’s an accelerating curve. There was only one place to turn for insight – science fiction.

Now understand – I’m a SciFi nut. I have read literally thousands of novels and short stories from every sub-genre and generation of science fiction from H.G. Wells and Jules Verne to David Brin and John Ringo. I just didn’t imagine those fantasy worlds ever intersecting my “real life”. But Verne predicted nuclear submarines and spacecraft landing on the moon. Heinlein predicted both the commercialization and the governmental regulation of space. What do my favorite authors have to say about the use of knowledge in self-service and customer support?

It didn’t take much searching in my library to find two great examples: William Gibson’s novel Neuromancer (©1984) and Vernor Vinge’s short story Fast Times at Fairmont High (©2001). In Neuromancer, characters have access to knowledge libraries and skill enhancements on a kind of memory stick (called a “microsoft” – no connection to the corporation of the same name) that plugs directly into their brains via a “wetware” implant. Usage of these devices gives the user access to previously unknown facts as if they had been memorized in a more conventional way as well as the ability perform tasks for which they have no previous experience. Maybe that’s a little far-fetched. Maybe that’s what we have to look forward to in the fifteen-year realm.

Vinge describes capabilities more in the nature of “just around the corner”. His characters, primarily middle-school students, are engaged in the usual day-to-day activities of school, friends, the latest entertainment and interacting with peers all over the world via laser links, broad-band wireless and virtual reality equipment micro-miniaturized right into their clothing. To call up information – text, live or synthetic imagery, anything – or open live interactions with other people, they have merely to make subtle gestures and sub-vocalize commands that are picked up by the wearable computers as input and requests. The visual portion of the output is projected directly into their eyes through special contact lenses. The audio arrives through sub-mini ear-buds. These characters routinely enjoy interactions much more interesting to (and closer to home for) us in the customer support and knowledge management industry. Assigned a programming problem in computer class? Collaborate with a cyber geek in Belarus. Someone uses a word you don’t know in a conversation? A gesture noticeable only by your personal interface calls up a definition with examples and overlays it in your field of view.

Just imagine a technician servicing a complex medical diagnostic device being able to review a service manual or watch a tutorial video without taking their hands – or their eyes – off the device they’re working on. Imagine an auto service representative being able to hear the noise your car makes only when it’s at least twenty miles from the shop. Imagine your personal system hearing your boss ask you for the latest sales numbers and sensing your request to display them like a queue card so that you appear to have been prepared for the question. Imagine your current checking or credit card balance appearing in your field of vision while your looking at that new gadget at the local electronics store. Imagine . . .

In a nutshell, that’s the future of support technology and knowledge management. And it could be within that five-year window. It’s the idea that knowledge, information and even transactions are available in real-time, while you’re doing what you need help with, aware of your current context and –most importantly – without you having to leave what your doing to go get it. My twelve year-old daughter told me she saw video contacts just like those in Vinge’s novel on the Discovery Channel last week and she is usually ahead of me on these sorts of things. Now where did I put my Lava Lamp?