Top 10 Cloud Technologies: Virtual Assistants

As part of our exploration of the Top 10 cloud technologies changing the world

As part of our exploration of the Top 10 cloud technologies changing the world, in this post we take a closer look at item number 3 on the list: voice-activated virtual assistants.

Voice_Controlled_Smart_SpeakerDigital voice assistants such as Siri, Alexa, and Google Assistant have taken off with the rise of smart speakers and TVs. Fifty-three million Americans now own smart speakers, and the number rises 78% each year, according to NPR and Edison Research.

What makes these systems so popular, and where are they headed? And are there any pitfalls to watch out for as we increase our reliance on them?

Universal Robots

As long as humans have been inventing, they’ve dreamed of machines in their own image. As far back as 1920, when Czech playwright Karel Čapek coined the term “robot” in his play Rossum’s Universal Robots, the idea of a machine that could do the work of a person easily and without complaint has sparked the global imagination.

Alan Turing’s famous Turing test, which he proposed in 1950, carried the idea into the digital age, suggesting that one day, computers might respond so intelligently to someone questioning them as to be indistinguishable from human.

Programmers have been working toward that goal ever since, seeking to combine the encyclopedic knowledge of computers with artificial intelligence and understanding the synthesis of human speech to perform useful work.

Researchers at SRI International leaped forward in the 2000s with funding from a DARPA project called Personal Assistant that Learns (PAL). The system, wrote one journalist, initially sounded like a foreign tourist reading out of a phrase book, but it improved rapidly. In 2010, it spun out as a commercial product called Siri which Apple quickly acquired for use in all of its smartphones.

It took home appliances with voice assistants baked in, notably Amazon’s Echo smart speaker in 2014, for voice-activated digital assistants to really take off, which brings us to their current fast-growing presence in millions of homes. Privacy concerns notwithstanding, the devices seem well on their way to becoming as commonplace and indispensable-seeming as dishwashers, automatic coffee makers, and other household gadgets we take for granted.

Cautionary Tales

Source: HAL9000 Wikipedia

As long as the idea of what robotic assistants can do for us has existed, so have concerns about the possible dangers. Rossum’s robots stage a revolt in the play. Closer to the modern era, HAL, the artificial intelligence in 1968’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, brought worries about intelligent machines in our midst to murderous life on film. Even so, concerns have tended to center on the humans at the heart of the machines. It wasn’t HAL’s fault that he went off the rails, for example; it was the fault of human programmers who gave him conflicting imperatives impossible to reconcile.

In many important ways, our machines are reflections of ourselves. That’s especially true of machines—such as AI-powered virtual assistants—designed to learn from us. How we teach those assistants, just as with our own children, will influence how they grow up, said Georgia Tech roboticist Ayanna Howard in a New Yorker article promoting HBO’s Westworld. That’s why, she said, she takes the time to thank her smart speaker for responding to her requests. “These interactions will shape our day-to-day, minute-to-minute experience of modern life,” agreed fellow roboticist and Robopacalypse author Daniel H. Wilson in the same article, so we’d better get it right.

More to Come

We can expect cloud-based virtual assistants to play an ever-greater role in our lives, according to a recent analysis by Canalys. The firm predicts the global smart speaker installed base to hit 207.9 million units in 2019, up from 114 million in 2018. That’s a jump of about 82.4%. The market for voice-activated assistants overall is growing even faster. Juniper Research predicts 8 billion devices using voice assistants by 2023, up from 2.5 billion in 2018. The number includes smart speakers as the second-biggest category, after smart TVs.

Behind the scenes, data centers, including those of T5 Data Centers, provide the processing power and data storage that allow voice-activated virtual assistants to respond quickly to requests and deliver the information, media, and smart home commands that make them increasingly indispensable.

Enjoy. But don’t forget to be nice.

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