“Morning Sarah” said a voice from the kitchen. “The usual?” came the soft yet clear tones.
“Thanks Dave, yeah, why not. Can you also order some more bread and give me the news headlines?” Sarah replied.
No, Dave wasn’t Sarah’s partner, nor was Sarah some rich lady with a Butler who was weirdly called Dave. Dave, was a Virtual Assistant …and a Toaster!…. Of course. He is there to help with the day-to-day things that assist Sarah in getting things done more effectively. He also never burns the bread as well as; keeps an eye on the diary, orders the eggs and butter and even tells the vacuum cleaner when to get to work. Well done Dave, you’re a good ‘guy’.
Honestly, it would have seemed insanity to think that talking to a machine was anything but Sci-Fi and cartoons as little as 10 years ago. Consigned to Star Trek or Inspector Gadget with characters talking to or through robots to achieve their aims.
That ‘insanity’ is now a reality. Not only is it a reality, it’s a development that, when first released into the world was scoffed at and then adopted with crazy speeds. I remember when I first started talking to my iPhone 4s back in 2011, people looked at me sideways. It wasn’t long before I, a self identifying technophile, had a smartwatch. People’s eyes went so sideways that they almost popped out, seeing me asking my wrist to text message a friend or add to my calendar.
In truth, the adoption rate of Voice Assistants has boomed mostly due to the incredible hard work of the guys at Apple and Google with Siri and (originally) Google Now respectively. What they did was make the technical and scary, more accessible to everyone. Even my 80 year old grandmother talks to her TV to find her favourite movies and soaps.
They worked hard to ensure that the very difficult is made to feel very normal and simple. For a machine to understand natural language and then parse it into an instruction or query is an amazing feat. There are of course some frustrating times that doesn’t work, you should see my Yorkshire friends Amazon Echo queries Vs what Alexa understands. There is a mass of hilarious fails too, just look on YouTube. Thank me later.
I personally think that most people who use a Virtual Assistant use them for simple tasks like changing the music in the house or asking about the weather and news, or at most, to add to their diaries or set up reminders and alarms. They can do so much more and much of it is actually pretty cool. Much of the higher functionality of these assistants is either unknown or part of a third party tool or app currently so it’s harder to embed into the average daily life. This, I think, will change, and relatively soon.
For example, via different connected Apps, Devices and connector tools, I can (and do, often):
- Tell the Vacuum, via my smart home camera, to go and clean the floors;
- Turn on the lights when I get in with the trigger “Honey, I’m home”;
- Turn on the heating, via a voice command on my watch, on or off depending on the weather;
- Turn the home lights on and off intermittently in a natural looking way if we are out of the house for a particular amount of time, or if triggered via a command on my watch or phone.
- Through my phone or watch, tell my car where I want to go so that the Sat-Nav plans the best route before I leave the house. It even tells me if I need to leave sooner due to traffic!
That’s only a couple of things it does. When we upgrade the fridge, my watch or phone will be told when we are low on an item or when one is due to expire and ask me if I want to re-order.
From a professional perspective, for me, the ability to book appointments or remind me that a call is due, then ping my phone with the VoIP call link and pin is a god-send. I often use my watch when I am walking the dogs in the morning to draft emails to send later in the day or to message one of the team, without taking away from the enjoyment of spending time with the pooches.
With the proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT) this kind of ubiquitousness is only going to become more and more usual. You could actually create the same kind of ‘Breakfast Machine’ you’ve seen in the likes of Chitty Chitty Bang Bang or Wallace and Gromit.
- Tell your assistant in your watch or phone to set the alarm;
- Tell the assistant the alarm is for the trigger word or phrase ‘breakfast’;
- Get the bread in the toaster and the coffee machine set up;
- Put the egg in the poacher (that possibly chills the egg over night?!); &
- Go to bed, only to be woken by the smell of Coffee and toast!
That is the kind of future I’m waiting for right there.
There are even potential health benefits to these devices. I remember seeing a Voice Assistant that could coach you through a meditation by a simple trigger word or if it felt your BPM increase over a sustained period outside of exercise. I used to have, when I tried (I really did) a VA that would talk me through my gym session when I scanned the NFC or QR Code on the equipment. That didn’t work for me, I am officially allergic to the gym and am looking for the antidote but it probably helps a lot of people get and stay fit as well as maintain a healthy lifestyle.
Of course, there is the darker side of things that people fear, and ought to be wary of. It’s seemingly more and more easy to be a victim of fraud, whether it be over the phone or phishing emails and fake Apps. People will need to be wary of what, and who, they talk to through their assistants as well as what data is passed to what or where. It’s also quite unlikely that a banking App will expect you to speak your pass-codes or reveal balances over a speaker but I’m sure a VA version of banking is most likely in planning, if not already in testing for imminent release.
On the other side of things, films like The Terminator or even HAL 9000 in 2001 a Space Odyssey suggest these assistants will learn so much and grow to the point of being sentient. They’ll then soon take over the world leaving us with nobody to order the milk for us… Or worse…. Order full fat. Not to mention killing us all etc.
That just won’t happen. These tools are, in spite of what it seems, just “If This, Then That” logic gate tools that learn new decision trees over time. These are not “Intelligent” they are intelligently designed and crafted. True, they learn and grow, but they do so within the confines of the base programming they have. You might have a relaxation and mental health App connected to your device that helps when you say you don’t feel happy. It’s not going to one day start listening to your day, realise it’s Karen from HR that’s pissing you off and realise the best remedy is to hack into her email and plant secret government files in there to get her fired is it?! – That might be pretty cool as a film plot but the reality is that it’ll just keep doing it’s job, just potentially, a little better.
I guess the bottom line is that one day, and soon, you may indeed have a toaster that talks to you and that won’t be weird. It might be weird to name it Dave, I’ll leave that to you. We are going to start using VA’s more and more, they are going to get better and better and in general, the value they can bring our daily lives will serve to provide a net benefit to the world.
Just imagine your toaster reminding you to smile on the daily commute with a joke, someone sees you smile and smiles back and their day is a little better for it. They go on to work and the good mood they are in relaxes them. The relaxation they feel releases the pressure of the job and they’re hit with a flash of inspiration. Fast forward 6 months and we have a cure for Cancer. Ok, not super likely but it’s nice to think about tech in the future helping us all, even in small ways.
I think the key message here is that it may be funny to scoff at a new change or something unusual that develops, but it’s usually the early adopters or first movers that have the long term advantage. If we think of big businesses who are like a tanker ship, struggling to change with the times or a smaller business that is established in the “We’ve always done it this way” mindset. Be prepared to be overtaken by those who look at changes with curiosity, test and develop faster and with excitement. They are the competitors you don’t even know exist and unless you and or your organisations look forward, you’ll find it hard to compete in the future.