Sitting on an early morning flight recently I overheard a fascinating conversation between the two gentlemen sitting next to me.

As we descending into a misty and overcast Brussels, having left an equally misty and overcast London, my fellow passengers, who were obviously work colleagues, inadvertently revealed a tantalizing glimpse to the future. The one was telling the other of a recent experience involving him setting up a business meeting with someone in Germany.

He shared how setting up the meeting had taken several emails as logistics that included flights and accommodation were sorted in advance. Eventually the time and date were set and he took an early morning flight over the channel to attend the meeting.

Up to this point I had only been ‘listening’ as I really didn’t have a choice, my interest in the conversation somewhat distant and detached. But all this was about to change.

The Storyteller went on to describe how he had arrived for the meeting armed with two boxes of chocolates as designated tokens of appreciation, one for the person he was meeting with and other for Sarah, the helpful personal assistant who had been responsible for all the multiple logistical arrangements involved. Shortly after taking a seat in the office of the person with whom he was meeting and handing over the token gift, his host, noticing the other box of chocolates, asked why he had brought two boxes. Some cultures are disarmingly more direct than the average Brit is comfortable with and one could detect a slight wince in the Storyteller’s tone as he revisited the directness of the question posed.

“Well…” he said, “I thought to bring one for you and one for Sarah, your PA who has been so helpful and responsive in setting up our meeting”.

The response he received was not one he… or I for that matter expected:

“You do know that Sarah is a robot,” said the host. “Sarah is my AI Assistant”.

How I would have liked to see the look on the Storyteller’s face in that instant! His colleague sounded incredulous but was quickly regaled with further evidence of how amazing Sarah had been throughout the entire process. A compelling case was hastily established towards the inevitable conclusion that guessing Sarah was ‘not real’ was simply not possible – and something that any reasonable person in the Storyteller’s position would have failed to detect.

By this point we had landed and there was the usual scramble to retrieve luggage, avoid the luggage being retrieved, don coats and get ready to file obediently out the plane. How I wish I had interjected and exchanged business cards in order to find out more about the overheard story. But to do so would have been to acknowledge eavesdropping and somehow my more introvert self held sway and so I left the plane with a great story but little background context. And maybe, for the purposes of storytelling, that is how it needed to be!

As futurists of course this kind of ‘reality’ is something we speak about all the time. What sounds like the unlikely future is in reality, the very real present. Hearing my fellow passenger’s account somehow ‘earthed’ the future, bringing it crashing into current reality and in so doing, provided a brief glimpse into all of our tomorrows.

Prof Jim Dator’s ‘Second Law of Futures’ states that, ‘any useful idea about the future needs to appear ridiculous’ (he does however add that, ‘not every ridiculous idea is useful’!) …Best then get ready for ‘Sarah’ and other ‘ridiculous ideas’ about your tomorrows!

Sarah and many others ‘like her’ are changing the face of what it means to connect, interact and communicate. It may not be ‘what we like’ but it is certainly the way it will increasing be and the ironic thing is that Sarah might just force us into deeper discussions on just ‘what it means to be human’ in an increasing age of artificial intelligence and robotics.

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