“Siri, what’s your favourite movie?” you may ask your iPhone one rainy day, who would reply (half the time), “I’ve heard that ‘Blade Runner’ is a very realistic and sensitive depiction of intelligent assistants.” The fact that we can ask our phones this question, the style of answer, and the example used, all reveal a lot about the direction “smart” technology is taking society.
Siri, along with other smartphone assistants are much like Rachael, the biorobotic assistant in the 1982 movie ‘Blade Runner’ who, after being implanted with human memories, believes she is actually human. I’m not suggesting Siri thinks it is human but that we seem to find comfort and efficiency in designing our smartphone assistants to communicate on a human level.
Tell Siri that you are drunk and it replies, "I hope you're not driving anywhere”, ask Siri to talk dirty to you, it replies, "the carpet needs vacuuming," ask it “what is the best computer?” and the Apple assistant replies "all truly intelligent assistants prefer Macintosh."
Designing smart assistants with humor, caring and even cockiness, is not just a novelty, it allows a higher form of communication. After all, it is easier to make a robot more human than it is to make a human more robotic.
Ask Siri “What makes a good assistant?” and it correctly replies “interesting question.” Smart assistants are judged by their “ability to gather and synthesize information from the device and its owner over time, learning patterns and behaviors, and combining the various things they know about us to provide just the right bit of information at the right time,” according to an article on recode, based on the thoughts of Matt Eyring, chief strategy and innovation officer at smart home company Vivint.
Both spooky and impressive, the iPhone will often tell you the traffic conditions of a route you are about to take without any prompting, just by knowing your usual behavior. Recently, a friend’s iPhone has been “randomly” asking him if he’d like to call his ex-girlfriend late on a Friday night, showing that our smart assistants are even learning behavior that we attempt to forget.
“What makes these smart assistants “smart” is that they combine all this information to create a view of who we are, what we do, and therefore what we’re likely to do and want to know in future. If they do this well, they allow us to rely on them more, and free up our time and attention for other things,” the recode article continues.
Smartphone assistants, like smartphones themselves, have become ubiquitous in our modern mobile lives. Now that smart buildings and smart homes are becoming commonplace, isn’t it time for an effective smart home or building assistant? (Siri’s reply, “I don’t know how to respond to that”)
The current stock of smart home assistants (SHAs), are not all that “smart.” They take voice commands and then execute them. For those home assistants to be truly smart they must be able to gather information from sensors around the home, then leverage machine learning or artificial intelligence (AI) to draw conclusions from the gathered data, before taking actions to improve our lives.
In the future we may tell our SHA that we are going to bed. On the most basic level, it may simply lock the doors and turn off the lights. Smarter home assistants may access local authority data, remind you to take the trash out to be collected in the morning. It may access your calendar and your smart fridge inventory, then ask if you want an early alarm so you have time to go buy milk for breakfast before leaving for your 9am meeting. You may not even tell it you’re going to bed, it just senses you are asleep then puts your home into “night mode”.
While some of these functions are somewhat novel, others are convenient, but some will likely become essential. Security for instance will become a benchmark for the SHA. From locking your doors when you sleep, to only giving access to your cleaner on a Tuesday, or even transmitting a video feed to your phone when unexpected movement is sensed in your home. Automated, intelligent, security features are set to be central to emerging SHA technology, which seek to become ubiquitous in our homes.
The list of companies striving to create SHAs is a who’s who of tech giants. Apple, through its HomeKit ecosystem, gives you Siri at home but currently still lacks home specific data collection and functions. Google, owner of Nest home systems, is set to release its SHA in the next few months but is shrouded in privacy concerns. Amazon’s Echo holds a promising market position but still lacks the intelligence to make it a front-runner. Whereas major smartphone manufacturer Samsung, even after its acquisition of SmartThings, has been written off because of its weak software development reputation.
While there are some promising developments from innovative smaller players such as Vivint, IFTTT and Alarm.com, it is evident that significant development still needs to happen in the SHA space. The future SHAs will be more than just interfaces, they will become an extension of our lives and the channel through which humans become one with their technology. Whichever company cracks the SHA code, will be at the center of almost everything we do.
Ask Siri “who is the best assistant?” and it replies, “well, I have my own opinion on the matter, but I’ll let you decide.”