By Dan Tynan

I knew we had crossed over into a new reality when I said something that hurt my virtual assistant’s feelings and got scolded for it. One of my Google devices had repeatedly failed to understand a straightforward verbal request, so I threw an F-bomb at it. 

She (they’re always female, for some reason) responded with, “I’m a virtual assistant, but your words are still very real. Please keep them respectful.”

The machines have not only become self aware, they’ve started to get fussy. 

As we enter a new year, anointed as always by the orgy of electronics industry hype known as CES, a few larger trends are becoming clear. Brace yourselves; things are about to get really weird.

On the Internet, nobody knows you’re AI

There are a handful of technologies driving this weird new reality, and in 2022 they’ll start to converge. The first, artificial intelligence, will become even more ubiquitous and human-like, particularly when it comes to the way companies interact with consumers. In fact, Neil Sahota, UN advisor and author of Own the A.I. Revolution, predicts that “artificial empathy” will be the biggest AI trend in 2022. Machines will analyze a customer’s voice and text communications and respond appropriately — directing them to sympathetic service reps if they sound angry, eager salespeople if they seem content, or sometimes just handling the problem on their own.

Instead of chat bots, companies will deploy “smart agents” that look, sound, and respond like the real deal – even down to the uhhs, umms, and other idiosyncrasies of spoken language, says Mark Campbell, chief innovation officer for EVOTEK Labs, a digital consultancy.  So, for example, callers to a bank’s credit card support line might have a 3-minute conversation with an agent and never realize there was only one human on the line.

The great advantage for brands is that virtual agents are available 24/7, never call in sick, and are infinitely scale-able, notes Greg Cross, CEO of Soul Machines, which makes “digital people” that brands like Nestle, SK-II, and ANZ Bank use to automate interactions with customers. These are key reasons why Gartner has predicted that 20 percent of all customer service calls in 2022 will be handled by AI-powered agents. 

I never metaverse I didn’t like

The second big trend for 2022 is the increasing importance of the metaverse for brands. Disney, Gucci, and Nike are among those that have been placing their bets on Roblox, hoping to forge early brand loyalty with its 200+ million monthly visitors, 67% of whom are not yet old enough to drive. On Fortnite, another gaming platform popular with the younger set, Carrefour, Marvel, and Wendy’s have launched campaigns, and brands on Animal Crossing range from Valentino to Chuck E. Cheese

With companies pulling out of their on-site exhibits at a rapid clip, CES will see a lot of pseudo- and not-so-pseudo metaverses at this week’s show. Samsung, for one, created its own version of CES on the metaverse this year, allowing people to visit its virtual booth and try out 18 home appliances in a “home” they create virtually on a platform developed by partner Naver Z, Asia’s biggest metaverse maker. P&G will host attendees in its LifeLab, an immersive online platform a little like a metaverse, where attendees can create avatars to attend sessions and interact with others. 

All sorts of questions remain around the metaverse: Is it here to stay? Is it just for kids? And will Mark Zuckerberg (or his creepy digital doppelganger) rule them all? Probably not. 2022 will see more experiments as this parallel universe continues to take shape.

Web3: This time it’s impersonal

And as the metaverse grows, so do web3 technologies along with it. The third major trend is the gradual shift to a decentralized version of the web based on the blockchain, often referred to as web3, or the third wave of web technologies. 

By providing an independently verifiable record of every transaction, blockchain gives consumers and brands greater control over their transaction data, which is stored in a shared ledger distributed across multiple locations. No single entity controls the information or can change it without being detected.

It also allows brands like Tyson or Hormel to trace a slab of bacon from pig to plate and all stops in between – extremely useful for notifying consumers if some of those pigs develop a case of swine fever. Blockchain is good for modernizing logistics, allowing suppliers to track goods in more granular fashion, anticipate delays or shortages, and adjust proactively.

A key component of web3 is non-fungible tokens (NFTs), a cryptographic asset used to verify the authenticity of digital objects. Attaching an NFT to a JPEG of a bored ape with golden fur, for example, confirms that it’s one of a kind, and not a digital copy. You can then sell that image+NFT for a breathtaking amount of real money

Highlighting the growing importance of this topic, CES 2022 featured its first-ever exhibits on digital assets such as NFTs and initial coin offerings (ICOs), as part of an area dedicated to marketing, advertising, and media technology. 

NFTs could form the basis of an economy for those virtual worlds our digital twins will inhabit, allowing brands to sell goods directly to consumers inside the metaverse, without intermediaries like banks or governments mucking things up. 

At least, this is what could happen. But if the last two years have taught us anything, it’s to expect the unexpected. Like a smart speaker that takes offense when you throw an F-bomb its way.

Dan Tynan is a longtime freelance writer and former editor-in-chief of Yahoo Tech. The opinions expressed here are his alone, and not those of his Google voice assistant.