Travel’s journey through the generative AI platform shift

Whether it’s predicting the rise of personal computing or warning about the danger of infectious global pandemics, Bill Gates has a proven knack for foreseeing trends.

In a recent piece he envisions a future where artificial intelligence-driven agents are not only capable of natural language interactions, but also evolve over time, learning from user behavior. These agents will be a far cry from the annoying Windows 98 “Clippy” bot, acting as personal assistants, seamlessly integrating into our daily life, streamlining boring tasks and suggesting actions before the user requests it. Gates details how travel will be in the front line of this disruption:

“Imagine that you want to plan a trip. A travel bot will identify hotels that fit your budget. An agent will know what time of year you’ll be traveling and, based on its knowledge about whether you always try a new destination or like to return to the same place repeatedly, it will be able to suggest locations. When asked, it will recommend things to do based on your interests and propensity for adventure, and it will book reservations at the types of restaurants you would enjoy.”

Platform shift unleashing AI agents’ superpowers

Attempting to forecast how long it’ll take for such a potential paradigm shift to become our new reality is daunting even for somebody like the founder of Microsoft. But as tech guru Benedict Evans illustrates in this chart, in the past 50 years we have seen a platform shift every 15 years or so, with a new software or hardware, “form factor” in tech jargon, serving as a catalyst for each transformative shift. The launch of the iPhone in 2007 marked the last platform shift, enabling us to keep an internet-connected supercomputer in our pockets.

Are we in the midst of a pivotal moment that will see the rise of a new platform allowing us to interact and harness artificial intelligence? Some might argue that we already have it. The smartphone checks all the boxes thanks to its unparalleled accessibility and versatility. Its compact size, coupled with its advanced sensors.

According to internal sources, Google plans to turbocharge its existing Google Assistant in 2024, which will be rebranded Pixie. It could be integrated in Google’s next phone flagship, the Pixel 9, and will use the information on a customer’s phone, including maps and Gmail, combined with Google’s multimodal large language model (LLM) Gemini, to offer a truly personal AI assistant. On the rest of Android phones, tech site 9to5Google revealed at the beginning of 2024 that the search giant already integrated the capability to fully replace its current Google Assistant in the Android code with its chatbot Bard and place Bard prominently in the search app.

Google’s rival Meta, meanwhile, seems to be seeing traction with its AI assistant in the Ray-Ban smart glasses, as its chief technology officer Andrew Bosworth acknowledged in an interview in late 2023: “We believed this was going to be a great product with just camera video, live streaming, great music, good for calls. … Six months ago, we’re like, ‘We’ve got to get the assistant on it.’ Now, it’s the best feature of the glasses.”

The rush of AI integrations in all types of gadgets reached a new climax last week in CES 2024: A flurry of AI products were announced from ChatGPT integrations in cars to AI smart home robots.

AI first devices on the horizon 

As in previous technology shifts, AI might open up opportunities for the development of groundbreaking devices that better align with the transformed technological ecosystem and user expectations.

At the end of 2023, news broke that Apple’s former design legend Jony Ive had teamed up with AI poster child Sam Altman to work on a hardware project with innovative AI capabilities.

While the tech scene salivates at the prospect of a groundbreaking device coming to life from such a dream team, a new device with an AI-first form factor hit the headlines: Humane, founded by ex-Apple employees, unveiled the Ai Pin, an AI-driven device, controlled by voice, touchpad or laser projection. It performs tasks like messaging, calling, music playback and real-time language translation.

In a Ted Talk its founder Imran Chaudi used a classical traveler pain point to showcase the power of such a new device: “How often do we find ourselves in a new city, wrestling with our phones, trying not to bump into people, trying to figure out where we’re going and where we’re supposed to be? … Invisible devices should feel so natural to use that you almost forget about their existence.”

In time for CES 2024 another groundbreaking device promising to revolutionize the human-machine interface hit the scene: the Tamagotchi-style r1 AI rabbit device. During the company’s keynote, travel also popped up as a prominent use case by showcasing how AI makes planning and booking a complex trip to London a piece of cake.  

The jury is still out on whether a new breed of AI-first devices will be able to challenge the smartphone’s tyranny of this past decade. But tech guru Om Malik has a compelling point when he writes: “Apps are workflows set to do specific tasks. In the not-too-distant future, these workflows leave the confines of an app wrapper and become executables where our natural language will act as a scripting language for the machines to create highly personalized services (or apps) and is offered to us as an experience.”    

Unfulfilled promises of 1st wave of voice-driven devices

When Amazon unleashed Alexa onto the scene in 2015, the excitement around voice technology reached a fever pitch. Many anticipated a revolution where talking to devices would become the norm, and many travel tech players poured resources into crafting voice-activated applications in the Alexa Skills store. The boom in users asking their smart speaker to recommend their next summer destination or booking their next flight failed to materialize, and smart speakers’ main benefit has been limited in requesting to play the last Taylor Swift song. Alexa skills have been languishing in obscurity, Amazon massively scaled back resources in its division and many have been questioning the hype around voice technology.  

But the law of accelerating returns in technology might offer voice technology a second chance. As AI and voice technologies advance and converge, the compounding effect might accelerate innovation and user adoption exponentially in the near future.

Can the combination of AI agents and voice-driven interfaces transform the travel experience to the core?

Meet the travel AI-gent

Imagine a scenario where your AI device picks up cues from your chat conversations and video watching activity and then subtly nudges you with personalized travel content aligned with your unspoken desires.

Your AI agents will afterwards make the tedious task of planning feel like a conversation with a knowledgeable friend. As you speak about your travel aspirations, it will gather information from a myriad of sources, collating data about destinations, travel logistics, weather and local attractions, providing you with a comprehensive travel program.

Streamlining the often complex process of booking, the agent effortlessly arranges flights, accommodations and experiences based on your preferences, potentially even negotiating deals or seeking out discounts on your behalf, all without you having to click a single button or fill out tedious forms.

During the travel experience itself, it becomes your personal travel companion, providing real-time guidance, offering directions, translating languages or suggesting activities based on your location and the time of day.

Finally, in the sharing phase, your AI agent could automatically compile photos, videos and notes into captivating audiovisual narratives, suggesting the best snippets to share with your network.

To invest or not to invest in AI? That’s the travel tech question 

American futurologist Roy Amara famously stated that we tend to overestimate the effect of a technology in the short run and underestimate the effect in the long run.

It is fair to say that in the relatively short span of little more than one year since OpenAI’s launch of ChatGPT, generative AI has sent a shock wave in how humanity interacts with technology – and it only seems the preamble of a more profound paradigm shift that will disrupt all industries in the years to come.

All major travel tech players have quickly joined the generative AI hype, incorporating it to streamline customer service interactions and launching travel planning chatbots into their platforms. These AI tools aim to engage customers at the top of the funnel through relevant conversations, making the journey from inspiration to planning and booking more seamless and efficient.

Despite the initial enthusiasm, during the last quarterly earnings most publicly listed travel companies acknowledged that while generative AI holds big promises, their current implementations had not yet translated into a material impact of their business operations.

So are we in the midst of a short-term exuberance cycle that will lead into disappointment? Or are we beyond Amara’s short run and will start reaping the fruits of a long term paradigm change in a reasonably short period of time? 

As Bill Gates famously said, “The advance of technology is based on making it fit in so that you don’t really even notice it, so it’s part of everyday life.”  

Even if a future where AI agents become an integral part of a traveler’s life still sounds like a far-fetched vision, the industry will be wise to learn to navigate these uncharted waters. Adopting a nimble and fast learning approach, aligning investments with tangible business benefits and striking a balance between continuously refining AI applications and testing new use cases should prepare the travel industry for the unfolding tech transition. The alternative might be clinging to a sinking ship while the world sets sail on the winds of AI change.

About the author …

Mario Gavira is vice president of growth at and an angel investor.

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