Computers we can talk to is something that people have thought about for a while now. From The Jetson’s robot Rosie to the Voice-activated central computers in every Star
Trek after the original series. Something Steve Jobs was very aware of, pulling out all the stops to make darn sure the Apple II would say ‘hello’ at its massive 1984 launch, specifically to give a friendly image and distinguishing Apple against the reigning industry giants IBM, whose machines looked like boxes and took a degree in computer science to operate.
In the end it comes down to connection. Humans, as a part of our nature, crave connection, not only with each other but also animals – hence our affection for pets – and even the technology that helps us live our lives. This is understandable considering how much of our lives are now spent online and how many previously analog tasks have moved into the digital realm, ranging from sending letters to looking up information, banking and even posting lonely-hearts ads. No, that is not a joke. The business of dating was once conducted in paper and ink newspapers.
2016: A Space Odyssey?
One of the most popular interactive programs is Amazon’s Echo. Known as ‘Alexa’, the tradition of female names for technology going all the way back to Apple’s LISA named after Jobs’ daughter, Echo can do amazing, unfathomable things like call an Uber, order pizza or check a 10th-grader’s math homework, saving time and effort for the entire family, making it even easier to keep up with the current, accelerated lifestyle. As useful and advanced as ‘she’ is, there are still a few issues here and there, that can leave even those who to profess to love ‘her’ with ever so slightly mixed feelings. As one user wrote in the cadence of an unbalanced, obsessive ex-boyfriend who cannot quite make up his mind:
“I love her. I hate her, I love her.” The cause of such frankly unsettling reactions is the fact that the Artificial Intelligence used to operate Alexa’s voice recognition system, has some room for improvement when it comes to accuracy and processing. If not addressed in a slow and clear manner she is likely to say: “Sorry, I don’t have the answer to that question”like the world’s most lovable automated answering service. Though, on balance most people would still likely prefer that to: “I’m afraid I can’t let you do that Dave.”
But Can It Learn?
According to our benevolent overlords at Amazon, Microsoft and Google, ‘yes’ it can and it will. While not quite resorting to the tactics used on poor old Andy Hertzfeld, one of the grand old giants of the Silicon Valley and a pair of its precocious upstarts have set themselves the task of making a fully functioning, voice-activated interface.
Not only are they determined to solve the short-falls in artificial intelligence but also the challenge of accounting for and programming into the systems, the ability to deal with every known sort of human voice variance including the syntax, dialect and accent of every known language on Earth. Impossible? Perhaps, though that is also what they said about breaking the Enigma Code.