When you look at science fiction, you’ll inevitably come across a future dominated by artificial intelligence. Sometimes AI is seen as incredibly helpful, other times it is portrayed as destructive. However it’s viewed, AI seems to be a permanent staple of the future, one accepted by most tech experts. So how far away are we from true artificial intelligence becoming a reality? The answer might surprise you. We’re not talking decades here; in fact, AI may only be a few years away. The process of adopting AI has been a steady one, but one of the most important steps has been happening all around us. Virtual assistants have now become a common trait of many technological devices. While they can certainly be useful, they may be the next step towards society fully embracing artificial intelligence.

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There are many examples of virtual assistants out there. Siri — the gentle voice accompanying Apple iPhones and other devices — is perhaps the most well known of the bunch. Microsoft has developed their own virtual assistant in the form of Cortana. Google has Google Now, Amazon provides its own service, and even Facebook has gotten into the game with an AI-powered virtual assistant simply called M. And those services are just the tip of the iceberg as individual companies and app developers have been busy at work creating unique virtual assistants with varying features. All were created with the intent of managing users’ tasks, sending alerts, helping find items, and any other number of capabilities that a personal assistant would handle in real life.

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The technologies that drive the AI behind virtual assistants is of high importance because it is this technology that will drive us into a world where AI is found everywhere. Even a shortlist of those technologies include speech recognition, file compression and transfer, user context, and proactivity. Improvements in just one of these technologies helps drive artificial intelligence development forward, and those improvements are happening regularly. Think of how many updates Apple has released for Siri, for example. One step towards AI here, another there, and before long, the technology will advance far enough to where we will have full AI.

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But technological advancement is only one part of the equation; people still have to get comfortable with the idea of a computer handling many of the tasks we’re doing right now. That’s why virtual assistants have become so important in the overall acceptance of a world filled with AI. Virtual assistants can do a lot of things, but they can’t quite do everything. When Microsoft developed Cortana, they purposely kept the technology’s abilities limited so that users would still feel comfortable utilizing it. Microsoft described this as progressive intelligence rather than autonomous intelligence.

Users still have to give Cortana permission to conduct certain operations and perform certain tasks. In other words, development of virtual assistants still gives users a high degree of control over how much they want to automate. By first getting used to what is a limited platform, people will eventually feel comfortable handing over that control to artificial intelligences.

That’s all for those who still remember a world where virtual assistants didn’t even exist. That might not be the case for younger generations. Children are now growing up in a world where their toys have virtual assistants, like the new Hello Barbie doll that will likely be a big hit for the holiday season.

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To them, virtual assistants and AI-assisted devices connected to what is cloud computing will simply be the way the world works, much like when we don’t even think twice about how much we use the internet today. And it’s not just toys that are being equipped with them. Televisions, cars, apps, and plenty of other items now have them or will have them shortly. In fact, the rise of wearables, where inputting text is impractical, will likely lead to even heavier use of virtual assistants.

The more we use virtual assistants, the more we become used to the idea of artificial intelligence. The evolution has already started. After all, how many of us refer to Siri or Cortana as “she” and not “it”? Virtual assistants might not be full AIs, but they represent a clear step in that direction. In a matter of a few years, fully realized artificial intelligence will likely become the norm. Many tasks will be handled without our needing to think about it. What once seemed crazy not long ago is set to be the reality in the not-too-distant future.

~ Rick Delgado