HTC One M9's Sense Home and Why I Don't Want My Phone to Second Guess Me

By Gerald Lynch on at

For better or worse, our smartphones are now extensions of our brains. I shudder to think how I’d manage to remember appointments without a calendar, or tot up sums without a calculator. Heaven forbid I be left to remember the birthdays of my nearest and dearest without a timely reminder notification.

The dream, then, is to have a device that not only supports these needs, but anticipates them as well. The ideal, attempted with limited success by iOS’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana, is for your phone (or indeed, any connected gadget) to replicate the functionality present in Spike Jonze’s 2013 film Her. In it Scarlett Johansson plays the disembodied voice of “Samantha”, an AI existing within an earpiece. Samantha is so intelligent and reliable that its user/owner Theodore (Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with it, and starts a dysfunctional relationship of sorts. It’s futuristic and creepy in equal measure.

While sensibly not walking into the Uncanny Valley å la Sir and Cortana, HTC’s One M9 and the company’s new Sense 7.0 Android UI attempts a few smaller scale tricks that are comparable. And they made me realise that, for the time being at least, I don’t want any gadget to second guess me and my needs.

Sense Home is a homescreen widget that attempts to anticipate which apps you’ll need in three different locations; at home, at work, and in more general “Out” scenarios. With work and home GPS locations set, the widget will over time learn which apps you use most in these places, and populate itself with the most relevant applications for those moments. It’ll then automatically switch on the fly between them when you travel between locations.

In theory, this is great -- no more digging around in app drawers to find the boring work app you’d rather forget about, and to return home and not be reminded of all the piling work awaiting me back in the office. Likewise, drunkenly being able to find the Uber app front and centre during a night on the tiles could prove immensely useful.

The problem is, HTC’s widget gets a few basics wrong. For starters, it regularly suggested apps that I never, ever used, rather than populating two sections of the widget with similar apps. Secondly, its “Suggested” apps are undermined by sponsored suggestions, ones that have obviously been promoted for financial gain for HTC, rather than something genuinely useful for me. These issues can be mitigated by “pinning” go-to apps in each section, but that misses the whole point of the feature, and still didn’t prevent another annoyance -- the jarring moment when apps I’d got used to being one place at work were somewhere else completely once I got home. In the end, I just got rid of the widget altogether and set up standard homescreen folders for my applications -- it’s what I was falling back to with Sense Home set up, anyway.

What dawned on me however (and what was more troubling) was that I realised wilfully offloading too much control and responsibility to the phone’s smarts was just generally a bad idea. Its silicon and circuitry just works in a fundamentally different way to my squishy pink brain bits, its algorithms standing no chance of keeping up with my ever-changing whims. And that’s where the magic of such a feature crumbles -- unless an AI can know you intimately (as with ‘Samantha’ in Her), it’ll always be incapable of guessing your flighty, human intentions. I’m not sure I want to hand over so much personal information to make that possible to begin with -- we don’t want to give our AI overlords too much of an upper hand when the inevitable robopocalypse occurs.

I still find the idea of a digital butler appealing, despite all this, in the same way that I’m grateful my laptop remembers Wi-Fi networks to connect to. However, for me to be willing to span the Uncanny Valley, it’ll have to be note perfect in its servitude, something that current systems just don’t manage.