“Alexa, can we talk?” Typing and swiping may take a back seat

Before delving into this month’s column here is a trivia question. Which of today’s popular voice-enacted virtual assistants has the most market share, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri or Google’s Assistant? The answer is at the end, no peeking. The title of my column asks, “Alexa, can we talk?” Unfortunately, the answer, for now, is no. None of the current artificial intelligence (AI) devices (aka smart devices) engage you in a human-like, back and forth conversation. We ask questions and smart devices, give answers, usually pretty good ones. While smart devices are fun and helpful, I assure you that future interactions will be much better.

Modern-day AI research began in a workshop on the campus of Dartmouth College in the summer of 1956 by a small group of mathematicians and scientists who also coined the term artificial intelligence. They believed then, as researchers do now, that human intelligence can be precisely described and a machine can be made to imitate it. Traditional goals of AI research include reasoning, knowledge, planning, learning, language processing, perception, and the ability to manipulate objects. General intelligence is among the field’s most ambitious long-term goals. Early scholars predicted that a machine as smart as a human would exist within a generation and they were given millions of dollars to make it happen. However, the task proved much harder than anticipated and difficult years followed because computers just weren’t ready. Over time that changed, and today, computers process massive amounts of data with breathtaking speeds. Computer progress supercharged AI research. Consider your cell phone. For most of us, they have become an extension of our hands and brains – we simply can’t live without them. As a point of interest, your smartphone is millions of times more powerful than the room-filling IBM mainframe computers NASA used to send astronauts to the moon in 1969. Those computers cost $3.5 million each and were as big as cars. Think about that the next time you feel like griping about the cost of your smartphone.

Today several smart device makers are working on AI projects. Take Google, for example. Inside the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, Google has a diverse group of creative writers working full time on giving Google Assistant a dynamic character and personality. Lilian Rincon, director of product management for Google Assistant, was recently quoted in a national magazine and explained the concept to her interviewer like this, “It’s, can I just talk to Google like I’m talking to you right now?” Making small talk and staying fully engaged with your smart device is what she meant – communicating with a machine that has the intelligence of a human.

Going from Q&A to a conversation is no easy task. However, they are working hard to get there, and this is great news because as consumers, we benefit from their hard work. It will be exciting to see where AI is five to ten years from now. In the meantime, smart devices will continue to evolve, and we will receive timely upgrades to software operating systems running them. If you are interested in learning more about the current state of AI, I suggest you get a copy of the 2017 special edition publication by Time Inc., Artificial Intelligence, The Future of Humankind. This periodical is available in Kindle and paperback formats.

Here is the answer to the trivia question. Amazon dominates the U.S. voice-controlled speaker market with its Echo-brand being used by about 70% of all voice-enabled speaker users. Google is second with about 24% market share, and Apple and Microsoft follow far behind. It was a bit surprising to learn Apple’s Siri is not on top. After all, Siri paved the way for the others when it was introduced on the Apple iPhone 4S in 2011.

Finally, a prediction. Within a few years, voice recognized AI devices will be as widespread as smartphones and like smartphones, we will take them for granted. If you want another opinion, just ask Alexa. LOL