Mobile World Congress (MWC) is the world’s largest gathering for the mobile industry held in Barcelona each year and hosted by the GSMA. While the conference has traditionally focused on the current state and future of mobile technology, MWC is evolving to focus on connectivity in general, and the devices and new technologies that fuel a more connected world. For the most part, experts agree that there were no real announcements touting hardware innovation, but there are some exciting things happening in software. 

Much like at Consumer Electronics Show (CES), announcements around artificial intelligence (AI) caught our attention, signaling major smartphone manufacturers’ intent to jump in the game by leveraging AI technology from Amazon or Google, or like Samsung, designing their own AI. No doubt, AI represents the biggest area for growth in the tech industry. Engadget’s Senior Mobile Editor Chris Velazco writes, “It's impossible to ignore the normalization of artificial intelligence at this year's Mobile World Congress -- even if a resurrected 17-year-old phone did end up stealing the show.”

The push for AI is massive. And though consumer handset brands aren’t exactly pioneering the revolution, they are certainly championing the technology and driving mainstream AI into consumers’ hands. Last month, Huawei announced that the US version of its Mate 9 would launch with Amazon’s Alexa AI technology on the handset. One of the ways Huawei is using machine learning algorithms is to optimize its phones' performance, especially as it pertains to memory.

This week, Motorola and Amazon shared the stage as Motorola announced the new Moto Z would also leverage Alexa, along with a Harman Kardon speaker Mod to effectively turn the Moto Z into a portable Echo. Motorola seems to have an optimistic view of AI’s place in the mobile space. In a pre-MWC press event, product chief Dan Dery indicated the company believes AI’s true value will come when Alexa will be able to interpret data about us directly from our phones - something third-party handset manufacturers haven’t cracked.

"The only personal device that can really start to represent you as a user to those services is the phone," Dery told Engadget. "There is a wall between the Alexa world and my world as a user. So this is exactly what we're trying to break." This is less of a concern for Google or Apple whose AI can talk to their brands’ first-party apps.

Though Google was late to the Home Assistant game, the tech giant is going head-to-head with Amazon’s Alexa technology in the assistant-to-handset space, especially when it comes to bringing AI to Android phones. The Pixel phone launched with AI technology, but at Mobile World Congress 2017, Google announced that Android 6.0 and 7.0 devices would also ship with its AI technology, signaling Google’s intent to give category leader Amazon a run for its money.

“I think it’s up to the user to pick,” Google Assistant product lead Gummi Hafsteinsson told TechCrunch last week. “Hopefully that should be the case with any product they want to use. If you have a phone with Google Assistant, our goal would be to make it possible for users to have access if they want it.”

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While Amazon may have a leg up on Google so far with Echo sales far outpacing Google Home sales, Google is far better poised to win the mobile handset market share. In addition to expanding Google Assistant on mobile, it rolled out on Android Wear last month and plans to launch on Android Auto and TV in the near future.

Mercedes made its own splash at MWC, announcing intent to leverage AI to make recommendations to the driver based on driver recognition and context. A few of the use cases include route recommendations based on traffic patterns and safety alerts.

Peugeot also announced its efforts to leverage AI technology which it hopes to introduce at the Geneva Motor Show this week. The Peugeot Instinct will learn its driver’s mood, integrate with other AI-powered home devices and generally seek to improve the owner’s experience both inside and outside of the car. The Instinct likely will not go into production until 2025.


The Future of Artificial Intelligence 

But Mobile World Congress is not just about product announcements. It’s also a time where global mobile experts gather to discuss topics that are most relevant and making the most impact on our industry.

"Mobile has gone from being a device to almost a philosophy," Tom Goodwin, executive VP and head of innovation at Zenith Media, told Ad Age. "It's less about a screen we make phone calls on, and it's more about a philosophy of data and content and companies becoming mobilized rather than mobile centric."

The future of mobile innovation will not be in hardware. Consumer products can only fuel innovation so much. It will be industries that leverage new technologies to power societal change that we will realize the true possibilities that software can bring. By continuously collecting and analyzing consumer data, we are able to glean so much more  about customer behavior and improve on customer experience. Thanks to faster processing, we can gather data in real time and make instantaneous decisions based on deeper insights.

Artificial intelligence and assistants will play a big part of our industry’s future, and much of the conversation at MWC centered around that topic. Respected AI experts discussed the evolution of AI and its successful application to date. They also discussed supporting technologies needed to power AI such as image recognition, gesture control, machine learning and contextually-aware computing.

In just three years, Gartner predicts that at least 1-in-5 smartphone interactions will be through an assistant. And while it’s not very sexy to talk about telecom infrastructure, the necessity for increased bandwidth due to all of this increased data consumption also means that 5G wireless, cell towers and switch providers still present quite a presence at MWC. GSMA predicts that by 2025, more than 1.1 billion connections (or 1-in-8) will exist on 5G. Expect to see more of an industry voice from telecom providers as “over-the-top” (or OTT) apps like Facebook, Messenger, WhatsApp and Google have replaced traditional text and voice, and telecom providers are looking for ways to recoup revenue lost to OTT providers.

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Another popular topic was the evolution of natural language processing and the mainstream implementation of chatbots across a number of interfaces. Samsung announced Nexshop Training - a new chatbot built for training retail workforces. The bot will help personnel provide better customer service by answering common questions asked by shoppers or equip personnel with sales and promotional information. The company is also rolling out Nexshop Sales, a second bot designed to help store supervisors manage inventory and purchase history.

Chatbots are already gaining traction with Millennials with Retail reporting that nearly 60% have used a chatbot and of those who have never used one, more than half want to. The brand also reports 2/3 of Millennials would make a purchase directly from a chatbot. It will be exciting to see how brands continue to adopt and leverage bots to improve the brand experience.

We are just now seeing what AI and machine learning can do and how it can be applied. As it continues to evolve and become more valuable, it will be interesting to see how mainstream audiences will interact and rely on the technology.  It will likely be Millenials, the most digitally-savvy generation yet, to champion both the innovations in the category, but the adoption into broader society. Conversations started at MWC around what we can learn existing implementations of AI will continue as will the very real ethical concerns we may face as AI evolves and becomes further entrenched in replacing humans in a variety of capacities.


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About The Author

Sarah Woodward applies more than 16 years managing client relationships and business development efforts to her role as director of business development for stable|kernel. Her strengths lie in bringing together the right people with the right expertise to the right business opportunities. Sarah’s favorite part of her job is evangelizing stable|kernel’s story and finding new ways to help new clients dream big. Recently, Sarah was named one of Mobile Marketer's "2016 Mobile Women to Watch."