Jan 7th 2017

Why 2017 is the year of the bot

In the 2013 movie “Her,” Theodore Twombly, a lonely writer, falls in love with a digital assistant designed to meet his every need.  She sorts emails, helps get a book published, provides personal advice and ultimately becomes his girlfriend.  The assistant, Samantha, is A.I. software capable of learning at an astonishing pace.

Samantha will remain in the realm of science fiction for at least another decade, but less-functional digital assistants, called bots, are already here. These will be the most amazing technology advances we see in our homes in 2017.

Among the bestsellers of the holiday season were Amazon.com’s Echo and Google Home. These bots talk to their users through speakers, and their built-in microphones hear from across a room. When Echo hears the name “Alexa,” its LED ring lights up in the direction of the user to acknowledge that it is listening. It answers questions, plays music, orders Amazon products and tells jokes. Google’s Home can also manage Google accounts, read and write emails, and keep track of calendars and notes.

Google and Amazon have both opened up their devices to third-party developers — who in turn have added the abilities to order pizza, book tickets, turn on lights and make phone calls. We will soon see these bots connected to health and fitness devices so that they can help people devise better exercise regimens and remember to take their medicine. And they will control the dishwasher and the microwave, track what is left in the refrigerator and order an ambulance in a case of emergency.

Long ago, our home appliances became electrified. Soon, they will be “cognified”: integrated into artificially intelligent systems that are accessed through voice commands. We will be able to talk to our machines in a way that seems natural. Microsoft has developed a voice-recognition technology that can transcribe speech as well as a human and translate it into multiple languages. Google has demonstrated a voice-synthesis capability that is hard to differentiate from human. Our bots will tell our ovens how we want our food to be cooked and ask us questions on its behalf.

This has become possible because of advances in artificial intelligence, or A.I. In particular, a field called deep learning allows machines to learn through neural networks — in which information is processed in layers and the connections between these layers are strengthened based on experience. In short, they learn much like a human brain. As a child learns to recognize objects such as its parents, toys and animals, neural networks too learn by looking at examples and forming associations. Google’s A.I. software learned to recognize a cat, a furry blob with two eyes and whiskers, after looking at 10 million examples of cats.

It is all about data and example; that is how machines — and humans — learn. This is why the tech industry is rushing to get its bots into the marketplace and are pricing them at a meager $150 or less: The more devices that are in use, the more they will learn collectively, and the smarter the technology gets.  Every time you search YouTube for a cute cat video and pick one to watch, Google learns what you consider to be cute. Every time you ask Alexa a question and accept the answer, it learns what your interests are and the best way of responding to your questions.

By listening to everything that is happening in your house, as these bots do, they learn how we think, live, work and play.  They are gathering massive amounts of data about us. And that raises a dark side of this technology: the privacy risks and possible misuse by technology companies. Neither Amazon nor Google is forthcoming about what it is doing with all of the data it gathers and how it will protect us from hackers who exploit weaknesses in the infrastructure leading to its servers.

Of even greater concern is the dependency we are building on these technologies: We are beginning to depend on them for knowledge and advice and even emotional support.

The relationship between Theodore Twombly and Samantha doesn’t turn out very well. She outgrows him in intelligence and maturity. And she confesses to having relationships with thousands of others before she abandons Twombly for a superior, digital life form.

We surely don’t need to worry yet about our bots becoming smarter than we are. But we already have cause for worry over one-sided relationships. For years, people have been confessing to having feelings for their Roomba vacuum cleaners — which don’t create even an illusion of conversation. A 2007 study documented that some people had formed a bond with their Roombas that “manifested itself through happiness experienced with cleaning, ascriptions of human properties to it, and engagement with it in promotion and protection.” And according to a recent report in New Scientist, hundreds of thousands of people say ‘Good morning’ to Alexa every day, half a million people have professed their love for it, and more than 250,000 have proposed marriage to it.

I expect that we are all going to be suckers for our digital friends. Don’t you feel obliged to thank Siri on your iPhone after it answers your questions? I do, and have done so.


Link to article on Washington Post’s website

The post Why 2017 is the year of the bot appeared first on Vivek Wadhwa.

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 31st 2020
EXTRACT: "From a Kantian standpoint discrimination based on race – or religion, or gender – is fundamentally wrong. It is wrong, first of all, because it is dehumanizing, a denial of human dignity. When I racially discriminate, I am denying the person’s intrinsic self-worth, I am, in fact, denying their very right to exist, whether I know it or not. The moral law demands that I treat every individual as a free person equal to everyone else. If the moral law grants each of us a kind of infinite worth, it does not grant someone greater worth than anyone else."
Jul 12th 2020
EXTRACT: "Remember, your wellbeing is extremely important when supporting someone with depression. Take time for self-care so you can model positive behaviours and be replenished enough to provide this crucial support."
Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."