Earlier this year Google unveiled Google Duplex — a human-sounding robot able to have a conversation with a person on a telephone In many cases, the person couldn’t distinguish that they were talking to a robot. It is, as Google explained, technology that is meant to carry out real world tasks over the phone, such as scheduling certain types of appointments. It is not meant for everyday conversations, Google also said — rather Duplex has been trained in a specific domain, such as taking restaurant reservations, and can only hold a conversation in that domain.

There is a school of thought that all of the current research and advancements in personal assistants, in artificial technology and in robotics are heading for a convergence of these technologies — say a walking, talking robot that is able to run errands for you. This development is not here yet but as creations such as Duplex show, they are coming closer to reality.

Existing Prototypes

Indeed there are already some prototypes of even greater examples of convergence on the market, according to John Carey, professor of Communications and Media Management at Fordham University. He pointed to LG’s Hub robot, Mayfield Robotics’ Kuri and Amazon’s prototype Vesta.

These personal assistants-robots “will be able to do physical things like clean the office, go to the local restaurants, place orders and bring them back to the office and deliver mail,” he said.

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Learning Opportunities

A Spectrum of Automation Technologies

None of this is to say that such developments are within easy reach of the market, despite the advancements that have been made. Even the mundane task of fetching coffee for multiple people in an office — with the right amount of sugar and cream for each order of course — would be an enormous task for a machine requiring the incorporation of robotic intelligence and autonomous capabilities, said Keith Strier, Americas AI Leader at EY Advisory. “When we talk about convergence, there is really a spectrum of automation technologies that range from the very rules-based to more human-like cognition, such as being able to recognize a face,” he said. “You might start out with a machine that has some human-like skills and it’s able to automate and do some tasks, but it’s still more or less completely dependent on humans to operate and to know what to do for guidance and curation.” Then you might be able to engineer that machine over time to have increasingly higher levels of autonomy so that it not only can accomplish some of those tasks but it can actually do them without human intervention or curation, Strier said.

In other words, he said, automation is a very dynamic process and it can evolve through levels just like autonomous cars. “Similarly these machines, whether they’re personal assistants like Google Duplex or they’re delivery bots that’ll be bringing pizzas to our front doors or personal companion robots that we’ll have in our house, these machines will have varying levels of human-like skills and varying levels of autonomy.”

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Preparing for the Future

That all said, a converged form of automation, AI and personal assistants is coming and it will make a mark in the enterprise space when it does, perhaps in surprising ways. For instance, said Michael Hollar, vice president, Data and Analytics at North Highland, a security robot could roam a building searching for such lapses as computers left unattended. Cameras and sensors can accomplish the same thing, he added, but employees are sensitive to that. “A physical intermediate could help acceptance. There are even higher impact opportunities in healthcare for home assistance or companionship. This concept is already accepted and is happening in Asia.”

There are even applications that could be developed in the customer care category, Hollar said, but this would be a very advanced use case. “Making a customer feel important takes a deep understanding of needs and thoughtful experience design along with the intelligent application of what could be loads of objective and subjective data,” he said.