It's been an unusual year in tech: Apart from maybe Snapchat's elusive Spectacles, there hasn't been a truly game-changing, mass-market piece of technology that's totally dominated the conversation.
Instead, the biggest companies in tech, especially Facebook, Microsoft, Google, and Amazon, spent their 2016 hyping up something a little more abstract: their ongoing quests to build a so-called "general artificial intelligence," and all the extra smarts they're adding to the product while they're at it.
Just in the last few weeks, Google released a bunch of code from its famed DeepMind as free open source. Facebook issued a series of videos explaining, in simple terms, exactly how artificial intelligence works. Microsoft released a huge set of data to help train virtual assistants like Siri and Cortana. And Amazon announced Amazon Lex, a service for developers to build Alexa-like intelligence to their apps.
If you ask the CEOs of these companies, it's all about building new features and functions to their apps — from facial recognition in Google Photos and instantly translating comments on Facebook, to more subtle things, like using AI to intelligently route internet traffic and make it possible to virtually "teleport" with Microsoft HoloLens.
Still, it's a weird thing for these companies to put so much public focus on. No matter how hyped the tech community gets for artificial intelligence, it's still very much abstract to a broad audience. You can't touch it, feel it, wear it, or, really, buy it. Unless you follow the ebb and flow of tech closely, it all feels like very "inside baseball" kind of stuff.
And yet, beyond the imminent promise of truly intelligent robots, there are some very practical reasons why Microsoft, Amazon, Google, Facebook, and everybody else is talking about artificial intelligence right here, right now, in just the last several months.
If you ask the biggest tech companies in the world, the rise of artificial intelligence is just as big a deal, if not more so, than the transition from desktop PCs to mobile computing.
Google CEO Sundar Pichai, a very vocal fan of AI, has said that he envisions a world in which every user gets their own personal Google. Facebook and Microsoft, too, have made a big point of showing how artificial intelligence is improving their own apps, enabling stuff (like helping you design better PowerPoints) that would never have been otherwise possible.
It all points to a brighter future, where all of our photos, our documents, our messages, and, in general, our lives, are more organized, more intelligent, and overall better, even as we increase our reliance on software for everything from productivity to shopping to getting around.