Tech Innovation

Virtual assistants: Benevolent AI systems that don’t want to take over the world


There’s been a lot of talk recently about the potential dangers of artificial intelligence (AI). Prof Stephen Hawking has warned that “we cannot quite know what will happen if a machine exceeds our own intelligence.” While SpaceX and Tesla founder Elon Musk suggested that “with artificial intelligence we are summoning the demon.”

Today’s AI systems — Apple’s Siri, Google Now, Microsoft’s Cortana and Amazon Echo’s Alexa — are light years from becoming self-aware. But they are becoming more widely used and we are giving them access to more data and connecting them to more devices.

Amazon recently made its standalone AI assistant Echo available for sale to anyone who wants one. If you’ve not seen one, Echo is a voice-controlled device able to provide a wide array of information from travel and weather information to trivia and restaurant recommendations.

One of the first virtual assistants to escape the confines of a smartphone, Echo offers a glimpse at the future of personal AI technologies.

Amazon Echo
Amazon’s Echo combines natural language processing, internet connectivity and Amazon Web Services to answer user questions.

Although tools like Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana are no longer the hot new thing, they bring together previously separate aspects of AI. For example, a simple request like “OK Google, what’s the weather for today?” combines web services, machine learning, knowledge representation and natural language processing (NLP).

Virtual assistants will soon control our smart homes

It’s an impressive technical feat. Even more impressive are the applications they can now be applied to beyond telling you tomorrow’s chance of rain. Echo, for instance, gives us a glimpse at the future of the smart home, in which voice-controlled virtual assistants can act as the central hub for an array of connected smart devices.

With Echo, users can turn on their lamps using a Belkin WeMo light switch, play music via Pandora or iHeartRadio, or even restock their fridge by voicing a request. Over time, it makes sense that similar tools — made either by Amazon or its various competitors — will also allow you to open and shut your garage, keep abreast of your home’s security, control the temperature, and even monitor the cooking of your food.

Apple's Siri in iOS 8
Apple’s Siri is baked into iOS and can be used to answer questions or to intelligently control an iPhone or iPad.

But virtual assistants can (and will) go further than that. In India — home to the world’s largest democracy — a “political Siri” is being used to help people in remote areas engage with politics.

Future intelligent systems might encourage us to vote

With 36 percent of India’s 884 million person rural population unable to read or write, startup Voxta created a tool for last year’s general election that allowed phone users to converse with a speech recognition system. The system was capable of answering their questions by directing them to relevant political speeches. Voxta’s creators describe their creation as the first virtual assistant to respond to questions about political parties’ policies and views.

A potentially more advanced project is Iceland’s Active Citizen, a political AI assistant proposed by UX designer Gunnar Grímsson. Previously responsible for creating a successful political engagement tool called eDemocracy (think Reddit but for civic suggestions), Grímsson says that Active Citizen will use artificial intelligence to alert users about political issues they may be interested in.

Cortana in Windows 10
Microsoft plans to include its virtual assistant technology Cortana as a key feature in Windows 10.

Health is also benefiting from the virtual assistant revolution, as tools like Siri become our new personal trainers. The presence of Siri on the Apple Watch makes it the perfect app for guiding us through workouts or ensuring we get proper hydration, while future technologies like embedded sensors for monitoring metrics such blood oxygen level will also neatly tie-in to the concept of a voice assistant.

There is even some evidence to suggest that Siri can play a useful social role in mental health areas: perhaps providing a means of helping otherwise isolated people to communicate.

When Siri originally launched as part of iOS 5 in 2011, it was quickly dismissed as a “gimmick” by many reviewers. But this benevolent AI, and others like it, are getting smarter. Next-generation versions of Siri and Google Now will take into account contextual data (where you are, what time it is, what you’re doing, etc.), ultimately providing information before you need it.

Perhaps virtual assistants will take over the world, after all. — Luke Dormehl (@lukedormehl)

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