Soon each and every one of us will have a PA, even PAs themselves. Artificial Intelligence Assistants are at last making a proper entrance. Most of you will remember Clippit, that annoying Microsoft Office paperclip, and it's quite amazing how far we've come in the space of just a few years. There's a rising number of impressive AI assistants that are beginning to be able to truly help us deal with tasks like managing diaries, booking restaurants or taxis, and even helping us writing our latest blog posts.
Amazing technological break-throughs in speech recognition, semantic web, natural language processing, machine learning and artificial intelligence means that the age of AI based assistance is now upon us.
As is often the case, you can measure early signs of technological break-through by observing the increasing number of burgeoning start-ups in said technology sector. And some, like Guile 3D Studio and Creative Virtual, are even managing to generate revenue.
Guile 3D Studio is a Brazilian company founded in 2001 by Guile Lindroth, a system analyst, artificial intelligence specialist and 3D graphic artist. For the past six years, Guile and his team have developed their own technology, for an Artificial Intelligence and a Real Time Graphic Engines, as well as a unique photo-realistic Virtual Human interface. The result is an amazing AI assistant called Denise. Once installed on your computer Denise is able to execute tasks on your behalf by typing or even speaking your request. She can manage your diary for appointments and meetings, check and send emails, search the web, draw up itineraries, call someone through Skype, give you the weather forecast and the day's news, upload images on Picasa and videos on YouTube, and much more. There are few chatbot and AI assistants out there, but what makes Denise stand out from the crowd is the 16 million colour-rich ultra-realistic avatar that comes with it. I've been using Denise for the last couple of months and I must confess that the character is so human-like, with emotional expressions, head animations and accurate lip syncing that calling her an avatar seems inappropriate. Guile 3D is the best AI assistant I have seen to date. They seem to have mastered all three key component (AI, embodiment and interfacing) and looking at their impressive roadmap it's quite likely that one of the big players will (if not already) be courting them.
Creative Virtual is another successful example of how AI assistance is fast becoming a commercially viable proposition. They are powering an impressive list of large companies such as HSBC, Virgin Media, ASDA, Verizon, Renault and O2 to name a few. Their core product is an automated online assistant called V-Person. The V-Person is capable of holding conversations with digital users in real time, 24/7. The embodiment is done through an animated picture of a real person. This gives the sensation of communicating with a 'real' person that is able not only to answer their questions, but also to understand the context of those questions and even hold entire conversations. Milton-Keynes council is using their services and, if you want to see V-Person in action, I suggest you pay them a visit. On the homepage you ask 'Shak' or 'Jo' a question, for instance "how can I pay my parking fine?" or "when will my rubbish be collected?", and not only will it give you an answer through the IM window, but it will also neatly load the relevant page in the browser. And just for fun I suggest you start a conversation, you'll see it is quite an uncanny experience.
So what can we expect next? Well I could make one of those pointless predictions, like 2012 will be the year of AI assistant, and then realise that like mobile in the past, there won't be a year of... It will just happen.
But here's a thought, applications are what catapulted mobile internet adoption into the masses; in turn, mobile is what will catapult AI assistance into mass-adoption.
And here's why: for a machine to work like us it needs to mimic our cognitive process, which fundamentally consists of the following three steps: Perceive, Reason and Act. As human beings we perceive through our senses, reason with our brain and act through our behaviour. Amazingly, the smartphones in our pocket can do the same. It can perceive through sensors that can not only replicate human senses (camera, touchscreen, microphone) but actually do more (geo-location, compass, etc). The reasoning is done by artificial intelligence and decision-making algorithms embedded in the cloud and it can act by speaking, displaying and connecting to other web services.
In April 2010 Apple acquired Siri for a reported $200 million. Siri's main product is also an AI assistant, in the form of a phone application, that understands what you say, accomplishes tasks for you and adapts to your preferences over time. It is highly anticipated that the iPhone 5 will launch with an assistant feature based on Siri. If this speculation does materialise then this will commoditise AI assistant feature on the phone overnight, and turn 2012 into the year that saw the beginning of mass adoption for artificial intelligence personal assistance.