• Dr. Timothy Smith

Digital Assistants

rotary phone

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AI already permeates our work, personal lives, and society in so many ways. With Siri on our phones and Alexa in our houses and Amazon and Netflix online, we continue to adapt AI tools and services into our daily lives often without resistance. When does technology become so fully adopted that it slips into the background of our consciousness? In “The Disappearance of Technology: Toward an Ecological Model of Literacy,” the authors, Bertram C. Bruce and Maureen P. Hogan, describe the embedding of technology in our lives as a process by which something like the telephone or electricity begins as something new, external, then overtime it becomes an invisible part of our lives (Handbook of Literacy and Technology). In other words, the technology fades from our consciousness and becomes part of the landscape of our day-to-day living. In a similar manner, the smartphone, GPS-enabled navigation, and Amazon and Netflix recommendation engines powered by AI no longer are new. They are expected. In many respects, AI has already become embedded in our lives today.

The personal assistant often depicted in movies and television as the overworked shadow of an important person doing all the little things they need to do but cannot fit in, anticipating their needs before they even think of them, and essentially smoothing out a hectic life, bringing order and fulfilling obligations like remembering an anniversary or a birthday. At some point, everyone has wished for a personal assistant for their own lives, and now through artificial intelligence and the wide availability of broadband internet, digital personal assistants are cropping up everywhere (even when you may not want them). They may not be as capable as a real human assistant, but they are easy to find and work with. Digital assistants are available through smart phones and computers such as Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Google Assistant. However, there are many more digital assistants available with names like Jibo, Bixby, and SILVIA. SILVIA is a artificial intelligence system that holds conversations with people through computers and smart phones while simultaneously displaying female featured head that blinks and shows some emotional signs with its face while communicating with the user. Many of these assistants will be able to answer questions on the fly, keep track of calendars, provide time-based reminders, send location-based reminders, and real-time updates on favorite sporting events, news stores etc.

The personal assistant has also left the computer and smartphone and now lives among people as a continuous presence in the home with Amazon’s Echo and Google Home. These assistants such as Echo come as a voice-activated smart speaker for home use that responds to the name “Alexa.” Echo contains speakers and microphones that connect to the internet to deploy its voice recognition capabilities to play songs, check traffic, and the weather just by calling out Alexa’s name. You wake Echo by calling out her name—Alexa, and the next things you say are sent to the Amazon’s artificial intelligence computers for analysis and the response is sent back to your Echo. The commands can be more than requesting a song or to get the news; Echo can also interact with smart devices in the home like smart locks and even order products or food from a restaurant. Recently, in the highly competitive field of digital personal assistants, fierce rivals Microsoft and Amazon have announced a collaboration that will allow Microsoft’s personal assistant Cortana to talk to Amazon’s Echo. Echo has focused mainly on assisting in home related tasks while Cortana developed strengths in email, calendar, reminders and such. Now the companies will cooperate and allow someone to ask Alexa to call Cortana or Cortana to call Alexa effectively taking advantage of each systems strengths. From a smart phone or a laptop computer, someone can call Alexa and ask to turn the heat up at home and order a pizza. Digital assistants are becoming more capable and now even cooperative.

The power of a personal assistant to organize a hectic life has often been showcased in media. Most people do not have a personal assistant, but now with artificial intelligence powering digital assistants like Siri and Cortana people are getting some of the benefits of a personal assistant. In fact, companies are joining capabilities to make a more complete assistant. Although the digital assistant will not ever replace the relationship with a real human, it can help us be more organized and maybe a little bit less stressed.

Dr. Smith’s career in scientific and information research spans the areas of bioinformatics, artificial intelligence, toxicology, and chemistry. He has published a number of peer-reviewed scientific papers. He has worked over the past seventeen years developing advanced analytics, machine learning, and knowledge management tools to enable research and support high level decision making. Tim completed his Ph.D. in Toxicology at Cornell University and a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from the University of Washington.

You can buy his book on Amazon in paperback here and in kindle format here.