Monday, April 3, 2017

Digital Assistants Are Here To Stay

Digital assistants (DAs) such as Amazon Echo, Google Home, Microsoft Cortana or Apple's SIRI are becoming very popular.  Presently these platforms are capable of answering simple questions such as "What's the weather like today?" or "Where is the closest Thai restaurant?" They can also play your favorite music, set a reminder, or plot the fastest route to wherever you want to go.  I have an iPhone and interact with SIRI nearly every day.  However, as with most technologies, none of us should become too comfortable.  The industry has big plans for DAs, and the versions available today are just the beginning.  
   First, let's consider how DAs actually work (Spoiler Alert - It's complicated).  Let's use SIRI as an example.  To start, SIRI actually stands for Speech Interpretation and Recognition Interface.  Catchy name, but it's no surprise Apple decided to go with SIRI instead.  When you speak to SIRI, the first challenge is to translate your voice to text, using speech recognition technology.  Because there are multiple ways to ask any question, and people speak with many different accents, this is one of the most complicated steps.  The text file is then sent to Apple's servers which have a large repository of frequently asked questions and potential responses.  The servers then use natural language processing to determine what action to take.  The results are delivered back to your device and then translated back into a synthesized voice using text-to-speech technology.  Pretty amazing, considering that we usually get our answer back in just a few seconds.
   So what is the future of this technology, and why are so many tech giants rushing to get a seat at the table?  For starters, for many years technology has been steadily moving away from traditional computers and websites to mobile computing platforms.  This puts the power of the Internet in our hands no matter where we are.  In a way, the move to DAs is simply a continuation of this trend.  Think about it, when you use a digital assistant you are no longer directly interacting with a search engine or website.  The digital assistant does all that for you!  If this trend continues, and there is every likelihood that it will, this has the potential to significantly shift the tech balance of power.  For example, when I ask SIRI a question, I'm not sure what search engine is being used, but I'm fairly certain it isn't Google!
   In the future DAs will become more powerful, more intuitive and able to answer much more complex questions.  As a result, we will become increasing reliant on our new digital friends.  
   My apologies, I have to end this post, SIRI is calling me.


  1. Maybe I'm a little paranoid but should we be concerned that these devices can be hacked or leveraged to listen in our our conversations whether we are intentionally interacting with the Digital Assistant or not? Are we acquiescing to George Orwell's "Big Brother" in exchange for a little convenience? [Ok, a lot of really cool convenience.] From Chuck

  2. No, I don't think you're paranoid at all. Clearly the digital assistants are always listening, waiting for a command. Who knows, maybe one day we'll hear about someone that was spied on via their digital assistant. We could of course refuse to use them, but then (as you say) we would give up the convenience. Quite a conundrum, and unfortunately I can't ask SIRI for advice of this.