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Siri, Cortana and Alexa: One step away from humanoid robotics?

Jonathan Whiteside
Jonathan Whiteside
Global SVP Technology & Engineering
5 min read
20 December 2016

For decades, writers and directors have been creating worlds where humans and robots coexist in society. From Fritz Lang to Philip K Dick to JJ Abrams, we’ve long been entertained by these visions of a dystopian future, that leave us wondering whether the plotlines could ever become a reality and, even if we could, would we want to build robots that could mimic and rival the human race?

After all, if Hollywood has taught us one thing, a story line with humans and robots living alongside each other always ends badly. Terminator 2, anyone?

Robots are here

With the increased focus on Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning in 2016, a world where human robots and humans coexist doesn’t seem all that far away. Whether we realised it or not, robots started to become part of our accepted daily lives some time ago with the introduction of personal assistants.

Smartphone applications such as Siri, Cortana and Google Now started to make their public appearances in summer 2012. These new-age personal assistants weren’t just built to carry out remedial tasks such as set reminders and calendar appointments, but were built to respond to questions such as:

  • Do I need an umbrella today?
  • What’s showing at the cinema?
  • What are the football fixtures for this weekend?

Siri, Cortana and Google Now were built to understand natural language, removing the need for humans to learn special syntaxes to enable us to engage with them just as we would our peers.

Not only do they understand us, but they also talk like us. They use natural language structures and adjust their pitch and tone to enunciate words, just as us humans would. On the odd occasion, they will even respond with a witty comment or joke that surprises and delights us. We even refer to them by name – “Hey, Siri.”

These features weren’t designed just to improve the user experience (albeit not having to learn a new syntax is a UX benefit), but were designed to make AI seem more ‘human’.

AI & the lot

With the introduction of the Internet of Things (IoT) and connected homes, personal assistants are now capable of doing much more than ever before. For example, let’s take Amazon’s Echo which features personal assistant Alexa.

Alexa responds to many verbal commands such as:

  • Play your music collection from Amazon Music, Spotify and TuneIn
  • Read audio books
  • Report the news headlines
  • Provide traffic updates
  • Report the weather
  • Read you your calendar schedule for the day
  • Control your lights and heating (by connecting to other connected devices)
  • Set alarms and reminders
  • And more yet to come in future software updates…

At the moment, these so-called robots are distinct and identifiable by their physical appearance. However, is it so hard to imagine a world where the personal assistant that controls your home takes on a human appearance?

Humanoid robots

Earlier this year, Hong Kong designer Ricky Ma built a life-sized humanoid robot to mimic the appearance of Scarlett Johansson for $38,000, using a 3D printer in the comfort of his own home.

Yes, she’s a little rusty in her movements and not nearly as intelligent as Alexa (sorry Scarlett), but it provides a sneak peek into what is possible right now. Imagine what we’ll be capable of in 5 years’ time?
Check out the video below which shows the world’s most lifelike humanoid robots.

Should robots look like humans?

This year I was lucky enough to attend the Web Summit in Lisbon, where tech and data enthusiasts from the world’s leading companies get together to showcase the future of tech.

On the AutoTech Talk Robot stage, two Silicon Valley robotic experts locked horns in a debate titled ‘Robots should look and act like people’. The debate raised many important considerations around the progression of robotics as well as regulations and ethics concerning integrating robots in our communities.

At the end of the debate, the speakers cast a vote to see how many people want to see robots that look like humans. The opinion of the room was divided in a 50/50 split making one thing abundantly clear: despite all the warning signals, this is something tech enthusiast are keen on pursuing.

I’m not personally a fan of humanoid robots (I can blame Hollywood for that). I’m not sure about you, but I’ll take Johnny 5 over a humanoid robot any day.

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