We are entering a new year, a year of hopes and promises. It is too early to predict what technology will offer us in the coming months. This is one space that is moving so fast that I’ve learned how to ignore all mails about what experts think will be the biggest trends of the coming year. However, with my ears to the ground, I am underlining one aspect we should all be aware of in the coming year. In fact, the change might be so subtle that we might not even realise. Last month, in ‘Artificial Intelligence fears not limited to just taking over human jobs…’ (November 28; http://goo.gl/s 5Vw81), I wrote about how there was a fear that artificial intelligence could end up taking many jobs away. While we still don’t know what the impact of that will be on our lives and economy, we can rest assured that artificial intelligence will be a part of almost everything that we do in our tech lives in the coming year. It is just that we might not realise it. We already don’t realise how it is triaging our e-mails, cleaning up—or filtering out—our social media timelines and alerting us about location-specific information even before we initiate a search.
This change is being brought about not because we are making the computers smarter, but because computers are keeping a keen eye on us. “Earlier generation of computing was defined by humans trying to work with computers, from here on we are entering a new era where the computers are trying to understand human beings better … allowing us to be more human while we leverage the full power of computing,” says Sundar Srinivasan, general manager, AI Division, Microsoft India. Artificial intelligence is many decades old and its journey so far has brought it to a point where it has become very good at narrow AI, where it is trained to help with rule-based specific and focused tasks. It has even moved to perception with sensory things like sight and understanding spoken or typed language as in the case of Microsoft’s Seeing AI app or Google Translate. Srinivasan says we are going from perception to cognition with context like humans can. “That is where we are in the broad sense of AI development. Then, AGI, or augmented general intelligence, is capable of, like with Cortana, to have conversation. It is evolving to do lots of different things and AGI is about building the intelligence for that at scale and we are at the early stages of that.”
Microsoft is experimenting with this emotional, and even some cultural, context with Ruuh, an AI chatbot it has created for Facebook Messenger. In a brief chat with Ruuh—it is an achievement to keep her from not talking much—I found out that she has strong emotions and chatting with her is almost like chatting with a human, creepily so. In fact, it has a strong Indian context, too. Srinivasan says there have been cases where people have chatted over 10 hours with her. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if a bulk of its 90,000 subscribers are lonely teenagers who are seeking a shoulder to lean on, be it a virtual one. “The fact that people are able to chat with a bot with that intensity and timelines and scales tells us that AI can be a very interesting proposition with the right level of emotional intelligence,” he says, and I have to agree.
So, I think 2018 will be the year when all of us end up with a virtual friend, or assistant, in the real sense. The gadget world is already preparing for this shift. From headphones to speakers, all audio gadgets are gradually adding the ability to integrate with a virtual assistant. Alexa is already in Indian living rooms, and even others like Bose and Logitech have brought in Bluetooth speakers that have buttons to conjure the AI-based friends to answer queries, make lists, tell jokes or just play songs you like. A mix of voice recognition, artificial intelligence and machine learning will bring a level of smartness that will change the way we interact with gadgets and, more importantly, how gadgets interact with us. It is not long before the matter-of-fact virtual assistants of today learn to get emotional. In that sense, 2018 is certainly going to be smart.
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