With just a couple words to a dark obelisk in the corner, your lights dim, music starts playing, and a pizza is delivered straight to your door. While all this might still sound like something from a science fiction movie, tech companies are betting big on new software that will make these conveniences more commonplace for everyday consumers. The newest generation of “digital assistants” are capable of performing these tasks and more – far from the earliest days of schedulers like the Blackberry and Palm, intelligent helpers like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa act less like computers and more like friendly comrades, albeit ones with an artificially-obtained consciousness.
The Early Assistants
History of the PDA
Early “PDA’s” were nothing more than advanced day planners. But the progression of machine learning capabilities and voice recognition software has changed the landscape for these types of digital tools. The first “smart” digital assistant hit the market back in 2011. Apple’s Siri could recognize voice commands, find information about sports and other hot topics, make reservations at restaurants and find movie times. Today Siri performs tasks by voice alone with a simple, “Hey Siri,” and is implanted in an increasingly wide array of Apple products – even automobiles are poised to possess her skills in a few short months.
Siri was soon followed by competitors from other massive tech firms. Microsoft introduced its own assistant, Cortana. Google took a different route, with Google Voice, a service app that operates within the main interface itself (though their work is far from over in this space). Facebook created the mysterious M, an assistant that could be contacted not by voice but by text. But right now the most visible and versatile of the current crop of smart assistants remains Amazon’s Alexa – compatible with the popular Echo device – an AI that can answer questions, coordinate home systems, do online shopping and accomplish an array of other tasks.
In various ways, all these smart softwares are capable of listening and responding. They serve as the hub for a user’s entire network of connected Things and act as a portal for entry to the wider world of the Internet. Amazon’s Echo, for example, integrates seamlessly into a user’s “smart home,” turning off lights, changing the temperature in your house and locking doors. Clumsy though it may still be for now, the ever-growing Internet of Things demands a clever interface to help us navigate all our newly-connected objects. Many professional security websites note the astonishing array of home automation devices, platforms and apps currently capable of coordinating plans with Alexa and the Echo – from accessing Spotify and Pandora playlists to setting a timer on the pizza in the oven, it’s possible that one day our digital helpers will be running our entire households.
Intelligent Smarthome Management
Always on and always “learning”, digital assistants pick up data and detailed personal information from sources including conversations, email, online purchasing, browsing and even locations visited to anticipate users’ preferences, offer them more choices and even make decisions for them. They listen for their name in a conversation, deliver reproofs when they suspect you’re being rude, and even make jokes. They’re designed to seem friendly and very human, so that users find themselves apologizing to their Alexa or feeling self-conscious alone in a room with Siri.
Even though these assistants may learn quickly based on the input they receive, they aren’t smart enough to do the right thing in every situation. Their “intelligence” is informed by patterns of human behavior, which remains as erratic and unpredictable as ever.
Yet as they continue to evolve and acquire a more important role in our lives, they become closer to partners, friends, and companions. Now promising convenience and control, tomorrow’s digital assistants may actually be able to “understand” us on a more human level. Out beyond ideas of right and wrongdoing, of black-and-white zeros and ones, there is a field. Maybe one day our robots will meet us there.