Artificial Intelligence (AI), enabling man-machine interaction based on voice commands, is improving all the time. In fact AI represents a mini technological revolution with an almost ‘science fiction’ feel to it.

2016 the Year of the Virtual Assistant?

Are we witnessing a new technological revolution? It would certainly seem so, given the dazzling progress made recently by the technologies underpinning talking robots. The latest advances have for instance enabled the development of non-human virtual assistants with an impressive level of (artificial) intelligence that brings to mind the on-board computers which were able to communicate so smoothly with the human spaceship crew in the film ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ and which have featured in many other works of science fiction.

Progress in Virtual Assistant technology has been driven by, among other things, major advances in voice recognition. During the Virtual Assistant Summit hosted by events company RE.WORK in San Francisco on 28-29 January, Tim Tuttle, founder and CEO of MindMeld, a San Francisco startup developing AI technology designed to power the emerging generation of intelligent, voice-driven applications, gave the audience some telling statistics. “Voice recognition machines have now for the first time surpassed humans in this field. Progress made by these machines over the last three years has been greater than during the previous thirty years combined,” he claimed, underlining: ‟Very recently, in 2014-2015, new systems have emerged that are capable of responding to a wide range of complex questions.”

Hal, the robot assistant in the film 2001, A Space Odyssey

Consequently, ‟while two years ago the only people using Siri were doing so just for fun, asking absurd questions and then forwarding the responses made by the software to all their friends, a growing number of users are now beginning to use this type of technology in their day-to-day lives.”

Another consequence of the rapid progress in voice recognition is that searches on the Internet are increasingly being carried out with voice assistance rather than via the keyboard: ‟Today, more than 10% of all search traffic is done through voice. In five years’ time this figure could well rise to 50%, predicted Tim Tuttle in his session.

This means that any apps which do not have a voice command option will become extremely frustrating to use, just as websites without search bars were a few years ago, he explained. Any new information and communication technology solutions provider will therefore need to have voice recognition expertise on board if it wishes to avoid being sidelined.

Revolution now underway?

Progress in voice recognition technology has to a large extent been the factor behind the amazing growth of virtual assistants, the best-known of these being Apple’s Siri, Cortana from Windows and Google Voice from... Google. We now seem to be but a step away from the claim made at the San Francisco Summit – that 2016 will be the year of a minor revolution, namely voice recognition
assistants – becoming reality.

‘Will 2016 be the Year of the Virtual Assistant?’ was the title of one of the panel discussions at the Virtual Assistant Summit. “There is undeniably a surge in interest around virtual assistants in the new technologies world, but I don’t think that the market has reached maturity yet,” began Jason Mars, Assistant Professor at the University of Michigan, arguing: ‟I would draw an analogy with the Palm Pilot, which looked very much like a precursor to the iPhone, with an almost identical app system. However, at the time, it just wasn’t clear enough how the technology could help us in our daily lives, and the Palm Pilot ended up disappearing. By contrast, some years later, the iPhone created a minor revolution. At the moment I feel that as regards the virtual assistant market, we’re at the Palm Pilot rather than the iPhone stage,” he concluded.

I believe that for the large market players, the whole issue will be about finding a technology to combine with the virtual assistant, in order to make tangible gains in our everyday lives,” said Nick Triantos, Managing Director of the SRI Ventures arm at California non-profit research institute SRI International. ‟Another challenge will be mastering the data,” added software startup advisor Steve Ardire. ‟In order to get these software programmes to work properly, you have to train them up by using large quantities of data. This is why firms with a lot of experience in this area start out with an advantage. This knowhow will be vital in order to move from systems based on memory to smart systems that can solve human problems on the spot.”

How will this impact our daily lives?

The issue of how all this will impact our daily lives in practice was debated during a second round-table session at the Summit, entitled: ‘How Can Virtual Agents Improve our Daily Lives?’ Drew Austin, co-founder and CEO of Wade & Wendy, a New York-based machine intelligence developer, believes that your virtual assistant will draw on megadata in order to be able to work as a multi-tasking assistant on all your daily tasks. Luca Rigazio, Director of Engineering at Panasonic’s Silicon Valley Laboratory in Cupertino, believes that the virtual assistants’ ability to hold discussions and even express emotions will enable unprecedented long-term relationships to develop between human beings and machines.

Han Shu, a data scientist at Airbnb, raised the question whether the market was more likely to be segmented or concentrated going forward. ‟Virtual assistants will soon allow us to link our connected objects to each other, building bridges between the various different services we’re offered thanks to the new technologies. But are we moving towards a market dominated by an all-powerful virtual assistant, whether from Apple or some other company, or towards a fragmented market composed of several virtual assistants, each with its own personality?” he wondered. And the debate on this point so far remains wide open.

By Guillaume Renouard