Every decade or so, a new era of computing comes along that shapes everything we do. Much of the 90s was about client-server and Windows PCs. By the aughts, the Web had taken over and every advertisement carried a URL. Then came the iPhone, and we're in the midst of a decade defined by people tapping myopically into tiny screens.
So what comes next, when mobile gives way to something else? Mark Zuckerberg thinks it's VR. There's likely to be a lot of that, but there's a more foundational technology that makes VR possible and permeates other areas besides.
"I do think in the long run we will evolve in computing from a mobile-first to an AI-first world," said Sundar Pichai, Google's CEO, answering an analyst's question during parent company Alphabet's quarterly earnings call Thursday.
He's not predicting that mobile will go away, of course, but that the breakthroughs of tomorrow will come via smarter uses of data rather than clever uses of mobile devices like those that brought us Uber and Instagram.
Forms of artificial intelligence are already being used to sort photographs, fight spam and steer self-driving cars. The latest trend is in bots, which use AI services on the back end to complete tasks automatically, like ordering flowers or booking a hotel.
Google believes it has a lead in AI and the related field of machine learning, which Alphabet's Eric Schmidt has already pegged as key to Google's future.
Machine learning is one of the ways Google hopes to distinguish its emerging cloud computing business from those of rivals like Amazon and Microsoft, Pichai said.
There's a dark side to AI as well, of course. If you think Google and Facebook know too much about you today, wait til they have even smarter computers and more data to work with.
Pichai made his comments during Alphabet's earnings call for the first quarter, which were a mixed bag. Sales were up 17 percent to $20.3 billion, but adjusted earnings of $7.50 per share fell short of the $7.96 per share that analysts had been looking for.
Cost per click at Google, a measure of how much it gets paid for ads, fell 9 percent from the same quarter last year. Alphabet's shares were down 6 percent at the time of this report after the results were released.