Robot 2020: Join the Conversation

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Robot 2020: Join the Conversation

Robots have hands and feet, arms and legs, a torso of some sort or another, and a kind of head sitting on top, maybe with bulging, fly-like faceted eyes, or camera lenses that stare back at its human master. If that’s what you think robots of the future will look like, think again. Chances are robots in 2020 and beyond will look more like a can of sardines.

by Tim Cole

In recent years we have seen a host of machines that perform household tasks like vacuuming the floor, carrying out the trash, or mixing a cocktail in the evening. As always, appearances are often deceptive and in reality robots will probably simply talk to us, answer our questions, remind us of appointments, and just generally be there when we want them.

Robot 2020: The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon - Season 4

A star is born: Robot Sophia makes a guest appearance and meets Jimmy Fallon on NBC’s Tonight Show

Yes, they will perform tasks for us, but these will be more in the nature of knowledge work: finding flights and booking a ticket, contacting a favorite restaurant to see if there is a table free, scheduling a doctor’s appointment, or whistling up a cab. We need to rethink our notions of what a robot really is. The preconceived idea of a humanoid mechanical servant that will constantly be at our beck and call harks back to the days of butlers and housemaids (or, worse, to human slavery). That is not what robots are destined to become, says Nicholas Carr, author of numerous bestsellers such as Utopia Is Creepy: And Other Provocations, The Shallows: What the Internet Is Doing to Our Brains, and Does IT Matter?

Carr has proven uncannily accurate at predicting important future trends in technology and in a recent opinion piece for The New York Times he mused about the future role, and appearance, of robots, writing that “a robot invasion of our homes is underway, but the machines – so-called smart speakers like Amazon Echo, Google Home and the forthcoming Apple HomePod – look nothing like what we expected. Small, squat and stationary, they resemble vases or cat food tins more than they do people.”

Marketed as smart speakers, these devices are powered by chatbots. Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa have already become household names in America, but acceptance is widening almost daily. In China, Xiaoice has become a digital friend to millions since being introduced by Microsoft in 2014.

Smart speakers are oracles of the countertop. They may not be able to speak for the gods but they can deliver reports on news, traffic, and weather

Nicholas Carr author of numerous bestsellers

Robot 2020: Nicholas Carr

One reason the tech giants are fixating on chatbots is that there is a widespread feeling today’s technological limitations will soon be overcome. Anyone who has interacted with a digital assistant knows how frustrating it can be. Chatbots are often overwhelmed the minute a conversation goes beyond very basic requests.

Conversation creates huge amounts of data

Recent advances in artificial intelligence (AI), especially in self-learning algorithms, have opened the door to much more sophisticated chatbots. Microsoft, for instance, designed its Cortana chatbot from the beginning to get smarter with every use, both by learning about the world and the people with whom it interacts, finetuning itself to anticipate the wishes of individual consumers. Every use of these AI-powered conversational interfaces is building huge amounts of data which, over time, will make these systems even more useful.

Another reason for the sudden hype wave about chatbots is down to the customers themselves and their changing habits. In 2015 the number of active users each month on messaging apps quickly surpassed the number of active social network users, according to a report from news website Business Intelligence. One year later, WhatsApp reached the one billion user mark, meaning roughly one in seven people on the planet use the Facebook-owned platform. WeChat, its Chinese competitor, claims to have 768 million users logged in daily, as of September 2016.

The human nervous system is a marvel of physical control, able to sense and respond fluidly to an ever-changing environment

Illah Nourbakhsh
Professor at Carnegie Mellon University, specializing in robot design

Robot 2020: Illah Nourbakhsh

In tandem with smart speakers, chatbots, essentially talking computers, have been quietly entering homes around the world. According to the market research company eMarketer, there were more than 35 million of them in American homes in mid-2017 – more than twice as many as just a year ago. McKinsey, an analysis company, predicts that three quarters of US households will own at least one of the gadgets by 2020.

“It’s not hard to understand the attraction,” Carr says. “Smart speakers are oracles of the countertop. They may not be able to speak for the gods but they can deliver reports on news, traffic, and weather. And they have other talents that their Delphic ancestor couldn’t even dream of: they can serve as DJ. They can diagnose ailments and soothe anxieties. They can read bedtime stories. They can even bark like a watchdog to scare off burglars. And they promise to be the major-domos of home automation, adjusting lights, controlling appliances, and issuing orders to specialized robots like the Roomba vacuum cleaner.”

Building a humanoid robot is tricky. Illah Nourbakhsh, a Carnegie Mellon University professor who specializes in robot design and is author of the book Robot Futures, reminds us that it requires advances not only in artificial intelligence but also in the complex hardware systems required to enable movement, perception, and dexterity. “The human nervous system is a marvel of physical control, able to sense and respond fluidly to an ever changing environment,” Nourbakhsh maintains. Achieving such agility with silicon and steel lies well beyond the reach of today’s engineers, he argues. Building a chatbot and channeling it through a set of smart speakers, on the other hand, is child’s play for the big tech companies such as GAFA (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon) and their peers. After all, messaging has become a major way for people to interact with their smartphones, so companies want chatbots to literally become a part of the conversation. For example, a group of friends could be discussing evening plans and a chatbot would seamlessly order movie tickets. Oracle recently surveyed major companies around the world and found 80% plan to use chatbots for customer interactions by 2020 and 36% have already started implementing them. As the dominant player in the field of messaging services, Facebook with its Messenger platform and ownership of WhatsApp is poised to take the lead. Facebook has 1.2 billion people using Messenger currently and over 100,000 active bots monthly.

Mark Zuckerberg recently showcased an AI-powered virtual assistant, codenamed “M,” to a handful of tech journalists. When M faces a question it can’t answer, it calls on human backup. Each time an intervention is required, M learns from what its human helpmate does. It can parse conversations, either locally through smart speakers or online, for certain keywords and contexts. Let’s say you need some money or want to take a trip, M can suggest ways to transfer money or hail a ride-share service. Users can tell M to share music, order food, or split a restaurant bill without leaving the conversation.

The next big way to use computers

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella believes chat-based interfaces will eventually become the primary way people use the Internet, replacing the graphical user interface, the mouse, and touchscreens as the next big way to interact with computers. “Intelligence will be infused into all of your interactions. That’s the rich platform that we have,” Nadella told the audience at Build 2016 in San Francisco, where he unveiled his company’s grand vision of “Conversation as a Platform” – making bots that understand natural language the next big way to use computers. Conversation as a Platform, he believes, will “fundamentally revolutionize how computing is experienced by everybody,” in a paradigm shift comparable to the development of the web browser.

Conversation as a Platform will fundamentally revolutionize how computing is experienced by everybody

Satya Nadella CEO Microsoft

Robot 2020: Satya Nadella CEO Microsoft

Microsoft showcased how this might work using Skype, which it acquired in 2011 for $8.5bn, demonstrating how Cortana can team up with various bots to plan a holiday – all without leaving the chat window. The company also unveiled what it calls the Microsoft Bot Framework: a toolkit of code and machine learning programs to enable anyone to build their own chatbot. Amazon has been following Microsoft and Facebook’s lead by creating Lex, a powerful conversation interface tool that uses the same technology as their Alexa chatbot. The company allows developers to create conversational apps or chatbots for chat services, IoT devices, or messaging services using a simple set of tools. In Amazon’s shareholder letter in 2017, Jeff Bezos told investors to “watch this space. Much more to come.” Analysts believe Amazon’s focus will be on bringing AI to companies via Lex, with attention on personal assistants for shopping. With over 10 million Echo devices sold, Amazon has its feet firmly placed in the smart speaker market; it is now looking for technologies that would allow it to continue to dominate retail commerce in the long term. As with every new technology, there are fears that chatbots and smart speakers, the new robots, will not only have benign effects. Nicholas Carr worries that “whenever you chat with a smart speaker, you’re disclosing valuable information about your routines and proclivities.” Smart speakers, he argues, not only provide a powerful complement to smartphones but, equipped with sensitive microphones, they will also serve as in-home listening devices that greatly extend the ability of their makers to monitor consumer habits. Big Brother, he fears, will not be watching us surreptitiously; he will be sitting right there on all our living room tables.

Changing the way people use technology

However that may pan out, smart speakers and AI chatbots appear to be here for the long run. The main reason will probably be convenience, says tech writer Jon Walker, who has been following the “Big 4” technology firms and their chatbot plans for years. “You just ask and it happens,” he says.

His view of the future is optimistic: “Based on Facebook’s experiment with an AI assistant that has human backup, it seems that if people have access to a really great assistant program they will use it frequently.” In the meantime, big companies like Microsoft, Amazon, and Facebook are investing heavily in the technology behind this generation of stationary robots and personal assistants, and betting they will soon become smart enough to change the way people use technology. At the moment, using a smartphone or accessing dozens of apps requires users to take dozens of different actions. That may soon become a thing of the past. Interacting with our machines may soon seem like sitting around and shooting the breeze with with a few friends.

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