When Will We Have Human-like Assistants?


I joined the Star Wars fandom late in the game. I grew up in India, where Star Wars is less of a thing, but in 2015 I watched “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” and set out on a quest to watch everything. I particularly like the robots. C3P0, R2D2, and BB8 are strikingly amazing. They can move and talk (though mostly in gibberish) and act intelligently. As we all know, technology is often inspired by movies. Just look at how speech technologies are evolving and inspired by movies like Star Wars.

Just how far off are we from the C3PO of my dreams now? We’ll have to talk about what my dream human-like assistant would be, and what technologies exist now, and how we might combine them together to achieve a fully automated human-like assistant like C3PO or R2D2.

First, what do I mean by human-like assistant? For me, personally, it’s someone you can interact with naturally at home, work, or wherever you may be to help you get tasks accomplished. It’s as simple as that. There are some early indicators of what that experience would look like, but I think that five key abilities below are critical to function as a complete assistant.

1. They can accomplish tasks both cyber and physical.

This one is obvious, they need to be able to do the thing I want them to do. If I ask them to cook me okra, they need to be able to source, store, prepare, cook, stir, spice, and plate the okra. If I want them to alert me when my kids are done with their homework, they need to be able to figure out what homework my children were assigned, monitor their progress, and alert my wife and I when they are done.

2. They need to be able to think for themselves. This includes both cognitive and critical thinking.

If I want my okra steamed, they need to be able to make the decision on what variety of okra I require, shop for the best price, and make decisions about preparation, plating, and storage based on the other ingredients in my pantry and the other dishes on the evening’s menu.

3. They need to be personable and emotional (or at least seem like they are).

They need to be relatable. As human beings, we still relate to technology in an emotional way. If one of my children is having trouble with the homework, the assistant needs to be patient and understanding and not scare or intimidate my child.

4. They need to have a presence.

A HAL-like disembodied voice is scary. To keep with the theme of them not scaring my kids, I need for them to have a physical presence that my children can relate to and identify with. I also need for this physical presence to be able to do things, like chop and stir my okra.

5. They need to be mobile.

My assistant needs to be able to move from room to room. While my assistant is cooking my okra and keeping tabs on my kids, they may be covering a total of three rooms in my house. Chopping okra in the kitchen, checking on my daughter in her room, and my son in his.

Products are moving in that direction, so let’s look at each category of product and what I think it would take to merge them all together into the assistant of my dreams. I looked at a few product lines that I believe are already moving in that direction.

Voice Assistants

The first category that I’d like to look at is vocal assistants. Think Amazon Echo, Google Home, and other comparable products. They can accomplish a variety of tasks that range from singing my favorite song to scheduling your next dentist appointment. In fact, there are over 15,000 skills with Amazon echo alone that make it more versatile by the day. While these voice assistants have been good at completing largely cyber tasks with growing cognitive abilities, they still lack in presence and, of course, mobility.

I would like for my assistant to know who is in the room, and respond accordingly. If my wife and I enter a room, I would like for the assistant to play our favorite music. When my children join us, the assistant can play my kids’ favorite music (assuming my wife and I aren’t sick of it, yet!). It’s just a matter of time before they grow those capabilities and meet the requirements of a truly human-like assistant.

Connected Toys

The next technology category (for me) is connected toys, such as BB8. These toys are growing tremendously and already combining elements of AI, robotics, and drones, making this category more exciting by the day. These toys can move around and are personable (not scary), but they don’t quite have the intelligence and autonomy of the vocal assistants.

What would happen if we took the mobility of a BB8 robot and put in the brain of next year’s Amazon Echo release? You would have a personal assistant that was mobile, pretty intelligent, and had a physical presence that you could interact with. A BB8 toy with an Echo brain would be able to come close to monitoring my kid’s homework completion, but not cook my dinner. It would come close to my vision of the future, but still not there.

Personal Robots

Finally, the technology group that is closest to my dream of the future is personal robots. They already bring many capabilities that I am talking about, though in bits and pieces.

They can combine the cyber and physical tasks, making them accomplish home tasks that range from taking care of the children to being companions to assisting seniors. So, what’s still missing? I feel it’s the total package of being able to give you a complete experience.

Now Imagine This:

Your assistant ‘chitty’ walks up the stairs, bringing you not just wake up song but also a freshly brewed hot coffee along with the morning news from your favorite news sources, and reads out your agenda for the day.

They sit with you on the car like a friend showing care and comfort, provide opinions and debate over the next election, or ring up your doctor when you have bad stomach ache and fly out to the pharmacy to pick up your medicine and update your diet based on what you need and when. The list can go on and on but you get the idea.

Overall, I think most pieces of the technology elements, creativity, and investments in AI are happening and improving quickly. So, I am hoping to see my ‘chitty’ soon, aren’t you?

Written by Akand Kameswaran, Founder of KnowThings.

KnowThings.io is a CA Technologies startup accelerator. We are building a machine learning-based device simulation to help IoT development teams build advanced virtual device prototypes and early-stage tests & development with realistic data s...
KnowThings.io is a CA Technologies startup accelerator. We are building a machine learning-based device simulation to help IoT development teams build advanced virtual device prototypes and early-stage tests & development with realistic data s...