Artificial intelligence moves from realms of science fiction to reality

The scenario played out in the Oscar-winning film ‘Her’ is becoming a distinct possibility as digital virtual assistant programs such as Cortana up the ante in the smartphone market

Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his digital virtual assistant Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Alls

Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his digital virtual assistant Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) in the 2013 Spike Jonze film Her. Photograph: Sportsphoto Ltd/Alls


‘It’s not just an OS. It’s a consciousness.” This blithe tagline from Spike Jonze’s movie Her, released last December, sets the context for how the introverted Theodore Twombly (played by Joaquin Phoenix) falls in love with his digital virtual assistant Samantha (voiced by Scarlett Johansson). Samantha provides an empathetic cushion for a vulnerable man.

His new friend is compassionate; she strengthens and ultimately emotionally bonds with Theodore – and yet ‘she’ is just a software program running in a computer.

While the movie is science fiction, digital assistants are becoming widely available on smartphones and are increasingly sophisticated and personable. As you chat to them, asking questions and issuing commands, they recognise your speech, and talk back to you as they search the web, carrying out your instructions.

In June, Microsoft announced its ‘Cortana’ digital virtual assistant, available on Windows Phone 8.1. The firm is promoting Cortana as more cultivated than its nearest competitors, Siri and Google Now.

For example, you can ask Cortana to restrict interruptions to only those from immediate family members and close friends – useful when going into a meeting or studying. It understands requests to link together events: for example, you can tell Cortana “when my brother rings, remind me to ask him to join us for dinner on Saturday”.

Cortana also understands follow-up requests, in which a question is presented in the context of a previous answer. For example, you might ask Cortana to recommend an Indian restaurant in your locality and then follow up by asking how long it will take you to walk there. Siri and Google Now do not yet have the same level of awareness of family relations and their importance, relationships between events and conversational awareness of context.

Digital butler

Both Cortana and Siri anthropomorphise digital search and other tasks. At this time, Google Now has yet to develop a human personality and so appears more robot than human. Emotion and personality create trust, and so it is likely that Google Now will in due course be given a personality. However accuracy is even more vital: a digital butler that misunderstands your speech, and so sends your rather personal message to your parent rather than your partner – or to the wrong ‘Una’ on your contacts list – might cause some mild embarrassment. The digital virtual assistants today are largely reactive: you ask them something, and they try to do it for you.

As the technology progresses, a proactive capability would be a definite improvement. Rather than waiting to be asked, your smartphone should also volunteer advice relevant to your work or lifestyle: for example, “The traffic on the N11 is still bad this morning, and so I suggest you leave now if you are going to make your 11am meeting with Sean”; “While you were busy, Joe O’Callaghan rang and wants to find out the status of his order”; and “Just to let you know DriveTime has a piece on Irish cuisine on at the moment. Would you like to listen to it?”

Frankly, the current generation of digital butlers are still novelty apps, and not yet ready as prime time business and social assistants. Usually it is far more efficient to simply tap out your request directly on the touch screen of your phone, rather than do verbal battle with a sometimes puzzled (and puzzling!) automated attendant.

However, Cortana has raised the game for the smartphone industry, and surely competitive tension will continue to yield further improvement. The potential is immensely lucrative: the first truly capable digital virtual assistant, approaching the capabilities exhibited by Samantha in Her, would doubtless capture and control the smart device market.

But Samantha has a dark side too. The world presented by Spike Jonze in Her is arguably more intimidating than George Orwell’s in Nineteen Eighty-Four: instead of Big Brother merely watching your physical activities, Samantha is aware of your innermost thoughts and so can manipulate your emotions.

Emotional clout

An automated personal assistant may learn so much about your lifestyle, behaviour, likes and dislikes, that it may be able to read your emotions and affect your purchasing behaviour. Human personal assistants are renowned for protecting their charges, and only permit access to their boss under strictly controlled circumstances. One can only imagine the retail power a software company which builds a successful digital butler will command, by mediating the access to consumers by advertisers and brands.

“I’m sorry Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that” was the chilling catchphrase from the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey, now nearly 50 years ago. “It’s not just an OS. It’s a consciousness” from Her may become as minacious for the next 50 years.

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