Say Hello to the AI in Your Pocket

I’ve noticed that many still view artificial intelligence (AI) as something that only exists in sci-fi movies or in the fantasies of tech geeks. This mindset is paradoxical considering that most of us are in fact carrying an AI with us all the time.

Cortana, Siri, and Google Assistant. Chances are that one of them lives in your pocket. 

I can come up with at least two reasons why people might still regard AI as something fuzzy and distant. The first reason is that AI has been creeping into our lives gradually. Yes, occasionally we’ve heard about some lonely computer beating some never-heard-of board game champion, but mostly it’s been just slow and steady progress. As the frog in the cooking pot can testify, it’s notoriously difficult to detect a change that occurs slowly.

The second reason is that until recently AI has not been able to interact with us in a human-like fashion. Many seem to think that if it isn’t human-like, it isn’t “real AI”. The fact that Facebook has been feeding you with whatever it assumes you’re interested in and pre-compiling videos for you to post on your timeline is thus not considered to be “real AI”. It’s just some nerdy computer science trickery.

I’m convinced that the general mindset regarding AI will change dramatically as the usage of intelligent personal assistants – or AI assistants – increases in the coming years. I’m talking about the assistant you probably already have in your smart phone or on your computer. The assistant you can talk to – and who talks back to you.

When Apple launched Siri as part of iOS 5 in 2011 many greeted this “intelligent" personal assistant with skepticism. That was understandable because the first versions of Siri were extremely limited. Siri only knew a few skills, sounded clumsy, and didn’t understand much of what you said. Shortly put, the user experience was so terrible that a lot of people decided to switch Siri off and never looked back.

The AI assistants of today are however something completely different. Siri on iOS 10 and macOS Sierra is much more human-like in its responses and is able to perform a wide range of tasks. Not only within apps of the operating system but also within third-party apps, like Spotify and WhatsApp.

Apple is not the only software company offering an AI assistant. Basically every company with an ecosystem has launched something similar. Microsoft has its Cortana and Google launched the Google Assistant at Google I/O in May 2016. Even Samsung realized that there’s a risk of falling behind and subsequently acquired Viv, which is a new AI assistant built by the creators of Apple’s Siri

Clearly the makers of smart phones and operating systems believe that AI assistants will become increasingly important in our lives. They assume that a growing number of our daily decisions will be based on information and input that an AI assistant gives us. Needless to say that the one who can influence our decisions about shopping and time consumption has a huge advantage.

Amazon detected this trend quickly and already in 2014 they launched the Amazon Echo, which comes in the form of a hands-free speaker you control with your voice. Echo is much more than a jukebox, as it can be used to control smart devices in your home, to find information on the Internet, and – of course – to order stuff from the Internet (read: from Amazon). Echo’s success in the U.S. was probably one of the key reasons why Google decided to launch a remarkably similar device called Google Home.

A lot of resources are currently being poured into the development of AI and personal assistants in particular. But will people start to use them? I mean, how often do you speak to your computer or phone? Or when was the last time you witnessed somebody else doing it at work or in a public place?

Many smart phone owners might be completely unaware of the capabilities of modern AI assistants. Some might for example still incorrectly believe that you’re limited to English in your communication with the assistant. Others might still be so discouraged by the early versions of Siri that they haven’t tested any assistant for years. Then there are those who simply think it’s way too awkward to start talking to your phone, even if you’re home alone.

But there are many situations when talking to your AI assistant can be a quick and easy way of accomplishing different tasks. The obvious example is when you’re driving your car and need to respond to a message or get information about your destination. Or when you’re preparing food in your kitchen and want to check the recipe or set a timer. 

From my own experience I can tell you that once you get over the initial hurdles you’ll quickly notice how powerful and convenient an AI assistant can be. There’s even a chance that you’ll become addicted to some routine. That’s the moment when you realize that AI truly and irrevocably has stepped into your everyday life.