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Apple Intelligence inches closer to Apple's 1987 Knowledge Navigator

Apple's 1987 concept of the future, and Siri

Controversial Apple CEO John Sculley may yet be proven right in his predictions for the future. Apple Intelligence could be the last step toward his fictional Knowledge Navigator.

Knowledge Navigator is a famous six-minute video created for John Sculley in 1987, and depicting life in what was meant to be the far future of around 2011. Sculley may be known first for ousting Steve Jobs, and perhaps for instigating the Newton MessagePad, but after that, it's his Knowledge Navigator video that he's remembered for.

To be harsh, it was Sculley attempting to be seen as a visionary for the future. To be generous, he got a huge amount right — or at least, his team did.

Almost 40 years after Hugh Dubberly was hired to create a video and Sculley chose a science-fiction theme, Apple Intelligence is arguably about to seal the deal on making 1987's fiction into 2024's fact.

It's actually arguable just what precisely the video shows, but there are several distinct ideas that can be seen — and that can be compared to today. They range from the hardware being shown, to the kinds of work that the lead character and most particularly his digital assistant are doing.

Fictional versus real hardware

Nothing tells you the Knowledge Navigator video is from the 1980s than the absolutely ugly hardware shown in it. There are traces of Apple's then-popular Snow White design ethos, but it's an adequate screen surrounded by an impossibly huge plastic monstrosity.

Gray flatbed computer with vents on sides, a flat surface at center, circular buttons on top, and an old Apple logo at bottom left corner.
Apple Knowledge Navigator in all its plastic glory

Although to give the video credit, the Knowledge Navigator comes with a kind of stand to prop it up. But Apple had clearly not begun its obsession with thin bezels.

Plus the Knowledge Navigator is definitely an early iPad — except that it's a folding one. There's no keyboard, though, and it has a front-facing camera for video calls, plus wireless networking.

  • iPad-like device: Yes
  • Folding iPad: No, but patents exist
  • Lack of keyboard: Yes
  • Front-facing camera for video calls: Yes
  • Wireless networking: Yes

Today's devices score: 4 out of 5

Knowledge Navigator Assistant versus Siri

In 1987's view of the future, we would always have a digital assistant on our screens. He'd look like a college student with a bow tie, and he'd be a true, unpaid intern.

The key thing, though, is that he would look like this — we would see him. All the time. During a video call in the video, his face is frozen but he's still looking at you.

Criticize Siri all you like, she does not stare you down. What Siri and the college student do both do, though, is extensive.

On other things, Siri is so close that you have to suspect it will get there when Apple Intelligence arrives. For instance, you can ask Knowledge Navigator to show you a specific document, and so far good luck getting Siri to do that.

That one about performing broad searches online is also true today, but will get closer soon. In the video, the professor character bossing around his digital assistant is able to get it to search for an online article when he can't remember what it's called.

Then once the assistant has found it and the professor has confirmed it's what he wants, the character is able to ask follow-up questions about the contents of the article. He doesn't have to re-state what article he means, because Knowledge Navigator understands he's referring to the same one.

A closed white futuristic device lies on a dark desk next to transparent rectangle pieces and scattered papers with text.
John Sculley's team even predicted the kickstand, sort of.

That's something Apple has said Apple Intelligence will bring us. Although this more conversational kind of communication with a digital assistant has been promised before.

Knowledge Navigator and Siri in action

The professor is able to tell his iPad — sorry, his Knowledge Navigator — to phone someone. We can do that now on iPads, and iPhones, and Mac.

What we can't do is determine that she's not available as quickly as the Navigator does. We'd have to wait for a busy signal, Navigator can just instantly tell us she's not responding to hails.

In the absence of talking to someone, the professor in the video then finally does some actual work. He asks for a map of all the universities — and we can do that right now by typing "universities" into Apple Maps.

We can't ask Siri to find them, no more than we can then ask it to narrow down the search to just ones with a geography department. There are AI tools now that can do this or something like it, but they're not on the iPad.

There are perhaps also AI tools that could do what our lazy professor then tells his Knowledge Assistant to work on. "Copy the last 30 years at this location at one-month intervals," he says after looking at some data, and before he pops in a miniature floppy disk.

  • Read aloud text messages and emails: Yes
  • Read aloud your schedule for the day: Yes
  • Search for articles online: Yes
  • Summarize articles: no (but coming with Apple Intelligence)
  • Perform broad web searches: Yes

Today's devices score: 4 out of 5

The past's view of collaboration

During all this, the woman he tried to phone earlier calls back and the Knowledge Navigator keeps her waiting. It does then announce that she's on the line, and Siri can announce phone calls too.

This all then becomes a very modern Zoom-like video call, if Zoom were limited to the small QuickTime Video player of the 1980s. Certainly the professor and his caller are able to share screens.

Computer interface from the 1990s with Brazil's map, two profile pictures, and menu options like File, Network, Tools, Schedule, and Agent.
Video conferencing with Knowledge Navigator: which is the real collaborator and which the frozen digital assistant?

And while it's not clear, it does look as if the professor drags a window around. He does definitely draw on the screen, although without an Apple Pencil.

The two collaborators then work on charts that they, or Knowledge Navigator update. Maybe we could do that with AI image tools, just asking Siri to give us a chart with these figures instead of those.

That seems close to what Math Notes can do in iPadOS 18, but not quite. And this is an area we're not yet able to go as easily as the video shows us.

  • Announce calls: Yes
  • Video conferencing: Yes
  • Screen sharing: Yes
  • Drawing on screen: Yes
  • Drag windows by hand: Yes
  • Update charts by voice command: No

Today's devices score: 5 out of 6

Virtual meeting with several participants, main speaker shown larger, side chat messages displayed on the right, chatbox at the bottom for typing messages.
Knowledge Navigator didn't come close to video conferencing on Apple Vision Pro (Source: Zoom)

So much of this can be debated, but as a very rough guide, today's Siri software and iPad hardware match the Knowledge Navigator on a total of 13 out of 16 details.

Today's hardware does also exceed the Knowledge Navigator, though, and not least with how Shazam can identify the video's classical music soundtrack. (It's apparently the 1979 recording of Koncert C-dur: 1 Mezzo allegro by Josef Hala.)

That music is a scene-setting tune for the video, it isn't playing in the scene, it isn't being played by the Knowledge Navigator. Whereas today we can call out to the empty air to ask to hear practically any music we want.

True, asking Siri to play that Josef Hala track on Apple Music fails, but that may be down to rights issues in different territories. Today 1987 seems such a simpler time.

The opened-up Knowledge Navigator. Admire those bezels.
The opened-up Knowledge Navigator. Admire those bezels.

We're not quite living in Knowledge Navigator's world

In each of those examples, present-day Siri is only a hair behind the 1987 prediction of the future. That's quite startling, and video maker Dubberly plus advisors like Apple's Alan Kay, deserve a lot of credit.

There is one more thing, though. It's startling how boring the whole Knowledge Navigator video is.

Maybe that's because so very much of what it shows is now commonplace. But the characters are a bit dull, the lifestyle shown is a bit stuffy, and the interactions with the staring assistant don't make you want to rush to talk to Siri.

There is also this. As he's leaving for lunch, after his hard four to six minutes of work, the professor calls out to his digital assistant. He wants that assistant to "find out if I can set up a meeting tomorrow morning with Tom."

The point is to do that while the professor is away, and presumably tell him the answer when he's back. Today you can ask Siri to ask this Tom if he's free, but it will send the fella a text message.

And in corporations, Microsoft Outlook can search through all the calendars of everyone wanted for a meeting, and find the one time they can all make.

But it can't decide to that while you're on a coffee break. Siri so far does not work for you while you're away.

Maybe that's the last thing left before Sculley can truly claim that (the people he hired) were right.