Why tech needs context

6am, and an alarm goes off on my phone. It’s time to get up for work. A discreet tap on my wrist at 7am from my watch alerts me to the fact it’s bin day. Today it’s garden waste, so the brown bin. 7:10, Another alarm on my watch: 5 minutes before I need to leave. Time to get my bag and put on my shoes.

I’m forgetful. I get caught up in things. And there is stuff that I really need to do at certain times. Like leave to catch trains. Or put the bins out. Mundane stuff, but important nonetheless.

But these things are contextual. And other than limited control over time and date I can’t really add context to them. I have 6 alarms relating to work which I can only limit to weekdays. I’d like to further limit them by special events (so only go off on weekdays that are not public holidays, and where I am not on holiday or otherwise out of the office). I’d also like to make them smart when it comes to location; “You are not at home, should I adjust your morning alarm?”

This leads to being able to schedule alarms to go off only if an event has occurred. Remind me to take out the brown bin every other week at 7am on a Monday, but only if I have put something in it since it was last put out. When I’ve done some gardening, “Hey, Siri! I’ve put some stuff in he brown bin”, and I know that I’ll get a reminder to put the bin out at the correct time.

Conceptually these are all easy things to do when considered in isolation, but become much harder when you start considering how it would work in the real world for all the different combinations people would want. Just knowing if it’s a public holiday can be confusing enough for me since my calendars insist on showing ones that are observed in Scotland but not England. Any system making informed decisions off this data would need to know about regional nuances like that. And that’s one of the simpler problems.

Smart reminders are coming though. I can envisage a time when I can just say “Hey, Siri! Remind me I need to buy some more tea for the office tomorrow,” and for it to know to remind me as I pull into the station that I need to deviate to a shop, plus tell me which is closest to my usual route. Then, knowing I paid using the company card, Siri will them prompt me when I get to the office to scan the receipt for my expenses.

We’re tantalisingly close, and I can’t wait until it starts becoming mainstream. In the mean time I’m just glad I managed to wake up on time the first day back after my holiday – I forgot to turn all my alarms back on, which could have been problematic.