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Future Tech: 

Artificial intelligence is about to get very real

Her (2013) Warner Bros. Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

Her (2013) Warner Bros. Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

In the 2013 hit movie, Her, Joaquin Phoenix’s character, Theodore, downloads an OS called Samantha, which is designed to adapt and evolve. She has the brain of a super-efficient human; becoming part secretary, friend, therapist, and, ultimately, lover. If you haven’t seen it yet, do.

The first question anybody asks after seeing Her is, “when will that become a reality?” The answer: actually a lot sooner than you might think, with news from Wired that Siri’s inventors are building a new AI that “does anything you ask”.

Siri, take me down memory lane

When Siri was introduced in 2011, we were amazed at how we could tell it – or her – to swap our meetings around and call up our friends. We were especially thrilled at her cheeky sense of humor, if you knew what to ask.

However, typically, almost immediately we wanted more. We wanted to actually chat to our phones, rather than have voice control with a name attached. Siri is an amazing thing, which has received remarkable updates over the years, but you still can’t have a discussion together over a coffee.

Microsoft Cortana keeps a log of your personal details

Microsoft Cortana keeps a log of your personal details

Then, earlier this year, at the Microsoft BUILD Developer Conference, we met the hotly anticipated Microsoft Cortana. Named after a Halo character, Cortana learns your habits and interests by what you do with your phone. The Verge referred to her as a “Siri Killer”, focusing its attention on one of her key features: Notebook – a log of things Cortana knows about you, like a real PA would carry, but fully controllable by you. As Marcus Ash, group program manager of Windows Phone, explained to the website, “It’s her view of you, but clearly you can just snatch it from her at any time”.

The quest for true AI

So, you can see we’re moving more and more in the direction of Samantha. In fact, we have been since the early 2000s. Writer and director of Her, Spike Jonze, first thought of the idea when 14 years ago he tried instant messaging with artificial intelligence, telling The Guardian, “After 20 seconds, it quickly fell apart and you realised how it actually works, and it wasn’t that impressive. But it was still, for 20 seconds, really exciting”. And of course IBM’s supercomputer Watson was competing with Jeopardy champions back in 2008.

Back to the present day and that exclusive by Wired. Yesterday, the publication revealed that a small team of engineers are on the verge of a new program that “will be able to teach itself, giving it almost limitless capabilities.” Named Viv – meaning ‘live’ – it aims to be the first assistant that’s truly a sidekick, and the inventors hope it will soon be found in a whole host of internet-connected objects. This means you could potentially control your whole house by talking to Viv. According to Wired, “Viv breaks through [those] constraints by generating its own code on the fly, no programmer required.” If it works it will be worth billions. AI is big bucks, with Google recently paying $500 million for the UK-based deep-learning company DeepMind.

Viv is still a highly secretive project

Viv is still a highly secretive project

So, will lonely folks find a friend in it/him/her? Maybe not just yet, but it sounds promising that they will find the most helpful digital butler yet.

Stephen Wolfram, whose Wolfram Alpha drives the intelligent question answering component of Siri and Bing, told the Wall Street Journal after the release of Her: “One of the confusing things that I used to believe is that you can make a general purpose AI that is kind of human-like that has a super version of exact human attributes. Realistically what’s going to happen is it’s going to be this nice information presentation of the different emails, and a stack of ones that are about this, and a stack of ones about that.”

Looking at our inboxes now, we’ll take that.

Main photo: Warner Bros. Pictures / Courtesy Everett Collection

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