When contemplating the future of artificial intelligence and voice activated personal assistants I’m reminded of Ian M. Banks’ Culture series of sci-fi novels. A future utopian society in which all of the daily minutia of our lives from provision of food supplies, healthcare, housing, transport and even exploration are carried out by tireless living artificial lifeforms. These beings are known as ‘Minds’ and they range from dutiful robotic butlers all the way up to interstellar spaceships capable of planning wars and even enjoying diplomatic careers. Banks’ paints an idealized and rather attractive view of our far-flung technologically dependent future. Human beings coexist with intelligent and self-aware machines who serve our every need to the point where working for a living is no longer necessary.

Unlike The Matrix films, the Culture series portrays humanities dependance on computers and technology in a very different and perhaps more realistic manner. In both instances mankind is arguably existing at the mercy of machines, however in the Matrix, humans are merely cattle to be consumed for the slaughter. Whereas in the more optimistic Culture world, humans are liberated from the pressures and burdens of working to survive. Survival is guaranteed and a comfortable life is assured. Therefore humanity is free to pursue more ponderous and creative exploits. Even the machines that breakdown from time to time are rarely repaired by humans and instead they are maintained by other machines.

So when Apple introduced us to Siri, the iPhone’s voice activated personal assistant in 2011, we had to wonder if our sci-fi dreams might one day become a reality after all. Right now of course Siri and indeed all handsfree voice assistant apps are limited to basic instructions and possess only the appearance of intelligence. The future of voice assistants will likely require advanced artificial intelligence subroutines that are capable of thinking autonomously. These AIs will make decisions on the fly that best suit the user. If Google’s S Voice and Apple’s Siri are the starting point to go by, then eventually these digital PAs could pervade every aspect of our lives. The assistant AI will exist entirely in the cloud and will be wirelessly connected to every single device you own.

The R&D lab at the New York Times developed their ‘magic mirror’ concept for the bathroom.

Imagine your average day. You are awoken by your alarm, which was set by your AI assistant. They wish you a good morning and gently increase the light level in your bedroom, whilst simultaneously drawing the electric curtains. The weather and traffic conditions are then provided to you along with a quick run through of your latest emails while you take a shower. You read your favorite news services inside the touchscreen mirror in your bathroom. Your assistant has an inventory listing of all of the clothes in your wardrobe. They make outfit suggestions for work like which tie and shirt match each other. The assistant software is integrated right into the electronic infrastructure of your home, from your TV to your coffee maker. So as you might imagine, when you enter the kitchen and living room, both of these devices are active and ready for you. After breakfast you prepare to leave your home and as you close the front door behind you, the security system is automatically engaged.

In the drive way, your electric car also senses your presence and opens the driver side door. As you take your seat, the assistant has already mapped the ideal driving route to work. You find that you still haven’t fully woken up and would rather catch another forty winks during the commute, so you ask the assistant to pilot the car for you. As you reach your destination the assistant gently alters the cabin’s internal climate system to rouse you from your nap. Just as the vehicle enters the carpark your stalwart assistant reminds you that you need to make a dinner reservation for this evening’s family get-together. You tell him to go ahead and find and book a suitable nearby Tai restaurant and make the reservation for 6 people. The assistant completes the request and simultaneously emails directions for the restaurant to the AI assistants of all six people in your dinner party. He then asks you how you would like to make the payment and you reply by telling him to use your credit card. This reminds you to tell him to transfer some funds from your savings account to your current account in preparation next month’s vacation. The AI will have complete control of your finances and will manage all of your bank account transactions without you having to lift a finger.

This is potentially just one vision of the future for Siri-like software applications. One thing seems certain, more and more of these voice assistants will occupy an ever increasing number of our devices. Already plans are afoot for voice activated functionality for laptops, tablets and cars. Sooner or later these services will be unified together. With technological advances in artificial intelligence this seemingly sci-fi depiction of the future could become science fact before you know it.


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