05 Mar 2014

Personal Digital Assistants: A Modern Love Story

“Hello, HAL. Do you read me, HAL?”. “Affirmative, Dave. I read you.”
2001: A Space Odyssey

The recent film by Spike Jonze titled Her tells the story of a reclusive and lonely writer, Theodore Twombly, who falls deeply in love with his computer’s operating system.

The operating system, called Samantha and voiced by Scarlett Johansson, is powered by super-sophisticated software that helps Twombly, played by Joaquin Phoenix, organise his life – even cracking ironic jokes and engaging in witty conversation.

Jonze’s postmodern rom-com is a reaction to a world where the relationship between human and machine is becoming increasingly normalised, where lines between woman, man and computer are blurred.

If only it were, though, that Samantha existed in the real world. Artificial intelligence is a big thing in the tech world, and the latest trend is for personal digital assistants, either in the shape of a physical smartphone or an app on a phone or tablet. But like wearable tech, the jury is still out on whether they are a fad or the shape of things to come.

Samantha might be capable of excellent logic and clever reasoning, but try asking your digital assistant about their feelings on, say, the work of Jacques Derrida and you’re more likely to get directions to the nearest cinema.

Nevertheless, digital assistants do a lot more than let people issue voice commands so they can use them better. Typically, digital assistants ask users to supply a rich variety of information about what they like to do in the evenings or how they’d spend a sunny day. This could include hobbies, web browsing habits, calendar, location and preferred habits.

The software then pulls together all this information to deliver a personalised service that responds to what people ask for and, it is hoped, anticipate what they need before they even ask for it – or perhaps even know themselves.

So if the weather data tells the assistant that it’s a sunny day, the user might wake up to news of local outdoor events or walking routes. If the user has an all-important meeting, the assistant will make sure it provides a gentle reminder.

The latest personal digital assistant is Microsoft’s Cortana, named after an artificially intelligent character in Microsoft’s Halo sci-fi video game series who can learn and adapt.

Billed as Microsoft’s answer to Apple’s Siri and Google Now, Cortana will be built into Windows Phone 8.1. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer described Cortana as “deeply personalised, based on the advanced, almost magical, intelligence in our cloud that learns more and more over time about people and the world”.

Tech firms hope that personal digital assistants will be the next big thing, but to become truly mainstream there are certain things they’ll need to focus on.


Translation is crucial in making digital assistants work in multiple languages. As companies look to appeal to customers across markets, an English-centric strategy to user experience is a redundant approach. They need to speak the language of their user, be it Chinese, Spanish, Italian, whatever. And it needs to be accurate.

Better voice search

Most digital assistants struggle with some English commands, hilarious manglings of even the most basic commands and search terms still commonplace. So imagine how they deal with commands in Russian, for instance, where there are many synonyms for lots of words? So, voice search technology will need to improve by becoming more subtle and refined.

More human, more engaging

Too many personal assistants roll out pre-canned responses chosen from a stock list of phrases. Some people might fall for it, but anyone with common sense will see pretty quickly that the “sophisticated AI” the assistants purport to offer is simply a database of stock responses being haphazardly mapped to the user’s commands. Companies will need to work hard to make their digital assistants engaging, warm and human.


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