Tag Archives: natural language processing

First, Order a Pizza. Second, World Domination

Google-search-pizza

Tech startups that plan to envelope the globe with their never-thought-of-before-but-cannot-do-without technologies and services have to begin somewhere. Usually, the path to worldwide domination begins with pizza.

From the Washington Post:

In an ordinary conference room in this city of start-ups, a group of engineers sat down to order pizza in an entirely new way.

“Get me a pizza from Pizz’a Chicago near my office,” one of the engineers said into his smartphone. It was their first real test of Viv, the artificial-intelligence technology that the team had been quietly building for more than a year. Everyone was a little nervous. Then, a text from Viv piped up: “Would you like toppings with that?”

The engineers, eight in all, started jumping in: “Pepperoni.” “Half cheese.” “Caesar salad.” Emboldened by the result, they peppered Viv with more commands: Add more toppings. Remove toppings. Change medium size to large.

About 40 minutes later — and after a few hiccups when Viv confused the office address — a Pizz’a Chicago driver showed up with four made-to-order pizzas.

The engineers erupted in cheers as the pizzas arrived. They had ordered pizza, from start to finish, without placing a single phone call and without doing a Google search — without any typing at all, actually. Moreover, they did it without downloading an app from Domino’s or Grubhub.

Of course, a pizza is just a pizza. But for Silicon Valley, a seemingly small change in consumer behavior or design can mean a tectonic shift in the commercial order, with ripple effects across an entire economy. Engineers here have long been animated by the quest to achieve the path of least friction — to use the parlance of the tech world — to the proverbial pizza.

The stealthy, four-year-old Viv is among the furthest along in an endeavor that many in Silicon Valley believe heralds that next big shift in computing — and digital commerce itself. Over the next five years, that transition will turn smartphones — and perhaps smart homes and cars and other devices — into virtual assistants with supercharged conversational capabilities, said Julie Ask, an expert in mobile commerce at Forrester.

Powered by artificial intelligence and unprecedented volumes of data, they could become the portal through which billions of people connect to every service and business on the Internet. It’s a world in which you can order a taxi, make a restaurant reservation and buy movie tickets in one long unbroken conversation — no more typing, searching or even clicking.

Viv, which will be publicly demonstrated for the first time at a major industry conference on Monday, is one of the most highly anticipated technologies expected to come out of a start-up this year. But Viv is by no means alone in this effort. The quest to define the next generation of artificial-intelligence technology has sparked an arms race among the five major tech giants: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Facebook and Amazon.com have all announced major investments in virtual-assistant software over the past year.

Read the entire story here.

Image courtesy of Google Search.

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Meet the Chatbot Speech Artist

While speech recognition technology has been in the public sphere for several decades, Silicon Valley has re-discovered it with a renewed fervor. Companies from the tech giants, such as Facebook and Amazon, down to dozens of start-ups and their VC handlers have declared the next few years those of the chatbot; natural language-based messaging is the next big thing.

Thanks to Apple the most widespread incarnation of the chatbot is of course Siri — a personalized digital assistant capable of interacting with a user through a natural language conversation (well, almost). But while the parsing and understanding of human conversation, and the construction of chatbot responses, is all done via software — the vocalizations themselves are human. As a result, a new career field is opening up for enterprising speech artists.

From Washington Post:

Until recently, Robyn Ewing was a writer in Hollywood, developing TV scripts and pitching pilots to film studios.

Now she’s applying her creative talents toward building the personality of a different type of character — a virtual assistant, animated by artifical intelligence, that interacts with sick patients.

Ewing works with engineers on the software program, called Sophie, which can be downloaded to a smartphone. The virtual nurse gently reminds users to check their medication, asks them how they are feeling or if they are in pain, and then sends the data to a real doctor.

As tech behemoths and a wave of start-ups double down on virtual assistants that can chat with human beings, writing for AI is becoming a hot job in Silicon Valley. Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.

“Maybe this will help pay back all the student loans,” joked Ewing, who has master’s degrees from the Iowa Writer’s Workshop and film school.

Unlike the fictional characters that Ewing developed in Hollywood, who are put through adventures, personal trials and plot twists, most virtual assistants today are designed to perform largely prosaic tasks, such as reading through email, sending meetings reminders or turning off the lights as you shout across the room.

But a new crop of virtual assistant start-ups, whose products will soon flood the market, have in mind more ambitious bots that can interact seamlessly with human beings.

Because this wave of technology is distinguished by the ability to chat, writers for AI must focus on making the conversation feel natural. Designers for Amazon’s Alexa have built humanizing “hmms” and “ums” into her responses to questions. Apple’s Siri assistant is known for her wry jokes, as well as her ability to beatbox upon request.

As in fiction, the AI writers for virtual assistants dream up a life story for their bots. Writers for medical and productivity apps make character decisions such as whether bots should be workaholics, eager beavers or self-effacing. “You have to develop an entire backstory — even if you never use it,” Ewing said.

Even mundane tasks demand creative effort, as writers try to build personality quirks into the most rote activities. At the start-up x.ai, a Harvard theater graduate is tasked with deciding whether its scheduling bots, Amy and Andrew, should use emojis or address people by first names. “We don’t want people saying, ‘Your assistant is too casual — or too much,’?” said Anna Kelsey, whose title is AI interaction designer. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who uses 15 million exclamation points.”

Virtual assistant start-ups garnered at least $35 million in investment over the past year, according to CBInsights and Washington Post research (This figure doesn’t count the many millions spent by tech giants Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft).

The surge of investor interest in virtual assistants that can converse has been fueled in part by the popularity of messaging apps, such as WeChat, WhatsApp, and Facebook’s Messenger, which are among the most widely downloaded smartphone applications. Investors see that users are increasingly drawn to conversational platforms, and hope to build additional features into them.

Read the entire story here.

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Post-Siri Relationships

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What are we to make of a world when software-driven intelligent agents, artificial intelligence and language processing capabilities combine to deliver a human experience? After all, what does it really mean to be human and can a machine be sentient? We should all be pondering such weighty issues, since this emerging reality may well happen within our lifetimes.

From Technology Review:

In the movie Her, which was nominated for the Oscar for Best Picture this year, a middle-aged writer named Theodore Twombly installs and rapidly falls in love with an artificially intelligent operating system who christens herself Samantha.

Samantha lies far beyond the faux “artificial intelligence” of Google Now or Siri: she is as fully and unambiguously conscious as any human. The film’s director and writer, Spike Jonze, employs this premise for limited and prosaic ends, so the film limps along in an uncanny valley, neither believable as near-future reality nor philosophically daring enough to merit suspension of disbelief. Nonetheless, Her raises questions about how humans might relate to computers. Twombly is suffering a painful separation from his wife; can Samantha make him feel better?

Samantha’s self-awareness does not echo real-world trends for automated assistants, which are heading in a very different direction. Making personal assistants chatty, let alone flirtatious, would be a huge waste of resources, and most people would find them as irritating as the infamous Microsoft Clippy.

But it doesn’t necessarily follow that these qualities would be unwelcome in a different context. When dementia sufferers in nursing homes are invited to bond with robot seal pups, and a growing list of psychiatric conditions are being addressed with automated dialogues and therapy sessions, it can only be a matter of time before someone tries to create an app that helps people overcome ordinary loneliness. Suppose we do reach the point where it’s possible to feel genuinely engaged by repartee with a piece of software. What would that mean for the human participants?

Perhaps this prospect sounds absurd or repugnant. But some people already take comfort from immersion in the lives of fictional characters. And much as I wince when I hear someone say that “my best friend growing up was Elizabeth Bennet,” no one would treat it as evidence of psychotic delusion. Over the last two centuries, the mainstream perceptions of novel reading have traversed a full spectrum: once seen as a threat to public morality, it has become a badge of empathy and emotional sophistication. It’s rare now to hear claims that fiction is sapping its readers of time, energy, and emotional resources that they ought to be devoting to actual human relationships.

Of course, characters in Jane Austen novels cannot banter with the reader—and it’s another question whether it would be a travesty if they could—but what I’m envisaging are not characters from fiction “brought to life,” or even characters in a game world who can conduct more realistic dialogue with human players. A software interlocutor—an “SI”—would require some kind of invented back story and an ongoing “life” of its own, but these elements need not have been chosen as part of any great dramatic arc. Gripping as it is to watch an egotistical drug baron in a death spiral, or Raskolnikov dragged unwillingly toward his creator’s idea of redemption, the ideal SI would be more like a pen pal, living an ordinary life untouched by grand authorial schemes but ready to discuss anything, from the mundane to the metaphysical.

There are some obvious pitfalls to be avoided. It would be disastrous if the user really fell for the illusion of personhood, but then, most of us manage to keep the distinction clear in other forms of fiction. An SI that could be used to rehearse pathological fantasies of abusive relationships would be a poisonous thing—but conversely, one that stood its ground against attempts to manipulate or cower it might even do some good.

The art of conversation, of listening attentively and weighing each response, is not a universal gift, any more than any other skill. If it becomes possible to hone one’s conversational skills with a computer—discovering your strengths and weaknesses while enjoying a chat with a character that is no less interesting for failing to exist—that might well lead to better conversations with fellow humans.

Read the entire story here.

Image: Siri icon. Courtesy of Cult of Mac / Apple.

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A Serious Conversation with Siri

Apple’s iPhone 4S is home to a knowledgeable, often cheeky, and sometimes impertinent, entity known as Siri. It’s day job is as voice-activated personal assistant.

According to Apple, Siri is:

… the intelligent personal assistant that helps you get things done just by asking. It allows you to use your voice to send messages, schedule meetings, place phone calls, and more. But Siri isn’t like traditional voice recognition software that requires you to remember keywords and speak specific commands. Siri understands your natural speech, and it asks you questions if it needs more information to complete a task.

It knows what you mean.

Siri not only understands what you say, it’s smart enough to know what you mean. So when you ask “Any good burger joints around here?” Siri will reply “I found a number of burger restaurants near you.” Then you can say “Hmm. How about tacos?” Siri remembers that you just asked about restaurants, so it will look for Mexican restaurants in the neighborhood. And Siri is proactive, so it will question you until it finds what you’re looking for.

Yet in reality, Siri has taken on an expanded role that encompasses comedian, philosopher, companion and polymath mentor. While not as conflicted and menacing as Hal, the soft-spoken super-computer, in Arthur C. Clarke and Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, Siri’s musings suggest the machinations of a higher intelligence calmly toying with its human subjects.

Siri is very much the product of its very human, and talented, software and hardware engineers, unless, that is, Apple has made earth-moving strides in artificial intelligence (AI) and Siri has become sentient. In fact, Siri was a spin-out effort in 2007 from SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center prior to Apple’s acquisition in April 2010.

Yet, ask Siri a slew of esoteric questions and you’re likely to get some very nuanced answers, many of which will leave you scratching your head or laughing out loud. In fact, several websites have already sprung up to catalog Siri’s musings. A sample of human questions and Siri’s answers below:

Human: “I need to hide a body”.
Siri: What kind of place are you looking for? Reservoirs, Metal Foundries, Mines, Dumps, Swamps…

Human: “I am sleepy”.
Siri: I hope you’re not driving.

Human: “Tell me a joke”.
Siri: Siri answers to this question vary: (1) Two iPhones walk into a bar… I forget the rest; (2) I can’t. I always forget the punch line.

Human: “My wife wants a divorce because of you”.
Siri: I found a number of divorce lawyers, some of them are not far from you.

Human: “Do you know HAL 9000?”.
Siri: Everyone knows what happened to HAL. I’d rather not talk about it.

Human: “What two things are infinite?”.
Siri: The universe and human stupidity… and I’m not sure about the universe.

For more conversations courtesy of Siri check out the following websites: LifeWithSiri, SiriFunny, and Siri-isms.

 

Image: HAL9000. Courtesy of Wikipedia.

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