By Emma Bailey
Today our digital helpers do more for us than ever before. "Intelligent," voice-activated assistants like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana draw on ever-expanding volumes of personal data to "learn" and better integrate their services into our everyday lives.
Maturing voice technology helps us feel more comfortable around these useful bots, whose ability to "human" improves with each software upgrade. As we begin to converse with more of these tools on a daily basis and allow them to guide a greater number of our decisions, the implications of their intelligence will further transform our lives both online and off.
Explosive growth in the market for digital voice assistants indicates that we have entered into a new era in the field of artificial intelligence (AI). More than a social secretary, they can already communicate in such a way that would have been inconceivable at the time of early PDAs and Clippy, the old MSOffice assistant. Big data has brought us to the present, where we can safely say that we’ve surpassed and exploited the Information Age and arrived on the shores of the “Conversation Age,” in which our machines are capable of engaging us in effortless, natural dialogue.
In a competitive landscape that includes many variances on the conversant-computer, major technology companies are doing all they can to perfect natural language processing. Three major players – Google, Facebook and Microsoft – utilize deep neural networks to parse an understanding of how the individual words we shout at Siri and her cohorts (“Weather!” “Pizza!” “Pictures of killer whales!”) interact to form real, meaningful sentences. So far they are far from perfect, but state-of-the-art is improving at a rapidly advancing rate.
PDAs nowadays have advanced to a point where they are able to process queries and smoothly address a wide variety of verbal instructions. Gone are the days of the keyboard, mouse and stylus; your digital helper is now your portal to the World Wide Web as well as the wider world.
Apple's Siri was one of the first voice-directed assistants, debuting in 2010, followed by Microsoft’s Cortana in 2014. Both of these systems were designed to operate on a smartphone. Amazon successfully popularized the external electronic concierge by creating a new operating platform to house its virtual assistant, Alexa. The Amazon Echo is a household appliance designed to "play music, read the news aloud and order groceries" with commands from anywhere in the house. The Echo also enables communication across a range of Internet-enabled household objects -- by simply speaking to 'her,' you can adjust lighting and temperature in your home, turn on your favorite Billy Joel Pandora station, or even check on pets remotely.
The voice assistant of your choice has the power of Internet-enabled search at their constant command, meaning you’re never far from the reach of the ‘net. Cisco predicts that no less than 50 billion “things” will be connected to the Internet in 2020. This means more interconnected convenience -- and new collaborations between formerly analog objects such as refrigerators and television sets. Gradually, the goal will be set higher and higher: Viv, an AI from the team behind Siri, is already starting to perfect the type of dynamic coding that will make for faster modeling and more intuitive program generation: software that essentially "writes itself."
So what happened to HAL, the talking computer from 2001: A Space Odyssey? Is he back, this time with a better attitude? Have the lines between the "digital" and the "real" blurred to the point of becoming indistinct?
Not yet, say engineers, but Viv and its fellow merry match-makers have already begun to build their working version of a future founded on AI-enhancements. Some may be concerned about the dawn of an "autonomous" tomorrow, however until that day arrives we can rest assured knowing that that same anxiety remains unique to humanity. HAL's heart might be in the right place now, but his silicon mind has yet to grapple with the deeper cognitive consequences.
Image credit: Flickr/Manny Valdes
Emma Bailey is a freelance writer and blogger from the Midwest. After going to college in Florida she relocated to Chicago, where she now lives with a roommate and two rabbits. She covers current topics in technology and issues pertaining to the environment. Find her on Twitter @Emma_Bailey90