Are electronic personal assistants the future?

Will we spend all of our time talking to our gadgets?
16 May 2017

Interview with 

Peter Cowley, Angel Investor


A person holding a cup of coffee while using a smartphone


Electronic personal assistants, like Siri, have been in our phones for a while, but now they are appearing in our homes too - in items such as speakers and lamps. So the big question is: will we spend all of our time talking to gadgets? Tom Crawford spoke to tech expert and Angel Investor Peter Cowley to find out what they can do...

Peter - A little bit of background - historically these devices where you could talk to and they would reply have been around for about 25 years on PCs and moved onto smartphones about 6 or 7 years ago on a variety of smartphones. Voice activation in cars has actually been around for about 10 years as well but conversation, the ability to talk to the cars, has just started. So the sorts of things you can do: you can ask it facts, you can switch on music video, you can do some shopping, you can control your home, you can add entries into your calendar, etc. - lots of things.

Tom - You’ve brought one of them along with you to the studio so we’re actually going to test this out. I’ll leave it over to you…

Peter - Yes. We spent a bit of time before the show just trying to work out what to ask it so let’s just try a few things. First of all we’ll say Alexa, who discovered gravity?

Alexa - Gravity is a discovery by Isaac Newton.

Tom - Nice.

Peter - Another one. Alexa, how many kilometres are there in a light year?

Alexa - One light year equals 9 trillion, 460 billion, 700 million kilometres.

Peter - And just one final one. I won’t try the long one. It’ll work out the factorial of numbers and if I put down 200 we’ll be here all evening so let’s try a smaller number. Alexa, 12 factorial?

Alexa - 479 million, 1,600.

Tom - I like the choice of maths questions considering we’re doing a maths programme! How do these things actually work then?

Peter - This is complicated. The biggest thing first of all is speech recognition. There are 6 or 7,000 languages, there are 40 odd thousand dialects. These things basically only work with a very few languages. In fact, on one of the products in one of tech companies, it’s only just moved away from English to German. So it’s speech recognition and the recognition will depend on how big the vocabulary is. So if you’ve got a vocabulary of 10 words say 0-10, it’s probably right every time. The English language is say 70,000, it’s probably only right overall about 60% of the time. So it's the speech recognition and then, on top of that, it needs to answer so it needs to understand what you’re saying. It’s not just the individual words together and so, of course, until conversation comes in it can’t reask the question in another way, which is the way we’re communicating at the moment, isn’t it?

Tom - Yep.

Peter - So you’ve got that the speech recognition etc., and then, of course, it needs an internet connection because it needs to go off into the Cloud to work out what the answer is.

Tom - What about the way it links in with data? I’ve heard an example of: if I had told my personal assistant that I need milk it would pop up and tell me when I went to a supermarket.

Peter - I haven’t heard that. But, yeah, we are moving to that - the geolocating advertising will hit our phones before long. So, as we’re walking along we’ll be reminded to pop into that pizza place because they’ve got discounts on.

The bigger issue is, of course, privacy and people are worried about that. They say, and I’m pretty confident it’s true because I’ve tried it, if you disconnect from the internet it will wake up and you won’t know anything so it’s recognising the ‘wake’ words, but once it’s woken up it’s then connecting to the internet. You’ve then got to trust, in the way that we’re trusting with our phones about the amount of data floating around, our location and everything else, you’ve got to trust the system for not misusing that data.

Tom - Should we be worried about this ‘privacy’ angle? That these seem to know so much about us?

Peter - Personally not. If you’re really worried about that then don’t have a smartphone - go and live in an encampment in Papua New Guinea or something. It comes down to trust. It comes down to governmental trust and tech company trust about that. As we referred before, we had a programme on Naked Scientists about Apple not releasing data about a phone that was involved in a crime. These tech companies are very keen not to be seen to be leaking data out, or giving data to security services.

Tom - What about the future? Will we be spending all of our time just talking to our gadgets?

Peter - First of all we’ve got to have conversation. Now conversation, as I say, is talking and there is a Cambridge company that was sold to Apple a couple of years ago called Vocal IQ, which is part of it. So until you can actually converse with it - Chat Bot’s they’re called - then we’re not getting anywhere, but that will be around quite soon and then you can be using them. The elderly might use it for company, they might use it for teaching children. Then we’ll start to use it more than we do at the moment, to the point really where we might stop using our fingers on our smartphones screens and we will talk to the device and it will respond to us. A bit like - you’re far too young - but Hal on 2001 A Space Odyssey - it’s a good example, and that goes back to 1969 that film.


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