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When AI Experts Have “It’s Alive!” Moments

Occasionally virtual assistants like Siri show flashes of humanity that suggest they could one day act like more than just software.
November 6, 2014

Though I know Siri’s clever quips are not much more than pre-programmed parlor tricks, there are times when its responses to what I say feel like those of a real, human assistant. Apparently the people who make virtual assistants like Siri and Google Now occasionally have such moments, too.

Siri cofounder Adam Cheyer mentioned an experience like that while speaking on a panel with other artificial intelligence experts at a conference Thursday about bringing voice control to the Internet of Things, held by voice recognition startup wit.AI (see “Making the Internet of Things Understand Your Voice”). It happened while he was working on CALO (for “cognitive agent that learns and recognizes), a project funded by the Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, DARPA, that led to the creation of Siri (see “10 Breakthrough Technologies 2009: Intelligent Software Assistant”).

Cheyer asked CALO something using the kind of sentence you might direct to a human, he said. The software responded in a way that struck him as more human-like than machine-like.

“I got this moment like, ‘Oh my God, we’ve just crossed over!” he said, though he quickly realized that the system’s response to his question made sense given its capabilities at the time.

Fellow panelist Rob Chambers, principal group program manager for Cortana, Microsoft’s virtual-assistant software, described a similar experience of his own. While Chambers was brushing his teeth and looking at his smartphone one day, Cortana suddenly showed a message asking if he liked to read news articles about smartphone technology. Chambers says the experience gave him a sudden feeling that Cortana was “real,” even though he knew that the ability to learn what types of things people like to know about was scheduled to be added to the software.

Despite these flashes of apparent humanity, several people on the panel—which also included people who had worked on Google’s virtual assistant, Google Now—agreed that virtual assistants aren’t about to move from handling administrative tasks like sheduling meetings to becoming our bosom buddies. That will require ways to be found to add a capacity to understand and express emotion.

“The big missing gap on the Internet overall, in the world we live, this electronic age, is personality with emotion we can connect to in some deep-seated human way,” said Ronald Croen, founder and formerly CEO of voice recognition company Nuance. “That might sound scary in one sense because this is not a real person, but it might be very gratifying and powerful when the content matters, when the engagement experience matters.”

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