What Lies Beyond the Virtual Assistant?

Here are five enhanced roles for the technology in the coming decade.

The age of the intelligent agent is upon us, but the true consequences of their emergence remain largely unexplored.

Is Siri just another genre of software interface, or do the technological offspring of Alexa and Google Now portend much broader transformations to our workforces, bureaucracies and social institutions?

To fully grasp the nascent possibilities of our digital helpers, we must first expand the metaphors we employ to make sense of them.

What lies beyond the “virtual assistant,” toiling away at our driving directions and calendar schedules, and just how will tomorrow’s intelligent agents break through the silicon ceiling to realize their potential?

We’ve identified five enhanced roles that companies and institutions of all sizes should prepare to engage with in the coming decade.

  The Surrogate: Your Digital Clone Army

Virtual assistants may help lighten the burden of daily logistics but offer no reprieve to the fundamental constraint on productivity: time in the day.

Pullquote share icon. Share

How will tomorrow’s intelligent agents break through the silicon ceiling to realize their potential?

The surrogate promises to chip away at that historic obstacle by formally representing your interests and making decisions on your behalf.

Ray Dalio, the CEO of the world’s largest hedge fund, has tasked his researchers at Bridgewater with creating an intelligent agent that can reliably apply his personal principles to the firm’s decision-making process: hiring workers, pursuing investments and navigating internal conflicts.

Replika represents another early foray in this direction, crafting your algorithmic doppelgänger by mining text chat conversations.

Why you may want to work with the surrogate: What better way to broaden your empire or extend the reach of your brand then employing a small army of digital clones for product pitches, contract negotiations and press junkets?

Why you may be wary: With the proliferation of personal data online, there’s little to stop third parties from creating surrogates without consent, unleashing an army of impostors to spearhead fraudulent schemes or competitive ventures.

  The Consultant: The Efficiency Czar that Never Sleeps

There’s nothing that intelligent agents understand so well as the goals and functions of logical systems.

For companies not proactively developing their own artificial intelligence (AI) applications, a visit from the consultant may represent the most obvious strategic investment of the next decade: assessing processes, identifying efficiencies and laying the groundwork for the introduction of their algorithmic peers.

Urban planners in the cities of Pittsburgh and Hangzhou have already experienced the benefits of algorithmic consulting in their traffic grids, enjoying 25 percent fewer traffic snarls with intelligently directed traffic lights.

Google similarly discovered 40 percent reductions in data centers’ cooling costs by enlisting the help of their own DeepMind program. Meanwhile, JP Morgan Chase and Japan’s Fukoku Mutual Life corporation have begun outsourcing the vetting and auditing of customer contracts to high-speed algorithmic bureaucrats.

Why you may want to work with the consultant: As the landscape of intelligent agents evolves, consultants won’t offer strategic differentiators so much as helping maintain minimum viability in an AI-rich world.

Why you may be wary: As the lore of the intelligent consultant grows, the algorithmic snake oil salesmen won’t be far behind, offering fantastical outcomes that are often too ambitious to realize but too compelling to completely ignore.

  The Ambassador: Brokering Relationships We Didn’t Know We Had

While humans in the near future may spend more of their time interacting with bots, intelligent agents will also play a growing role in helping us communicate with each other.

Pullquote share icon. Share

Intelligent agents will play a growing role in helping us communicate with each other.

For bridging cultural gaps or aiding large multi-stakeholder efforts, you will find no moderator as patient or objective as the intelligent ambassador.

Beyond the impressive language-translation technologies recently developed by Microsoft, Google and others, Kore is developing bots that can translate the goals and context of large enterprise systems for regular people.

The Swedish AI firm Gagai AB has taken this one step further by announcing a plan to create dolphin-to-English translation capabilities by leveraging an extensive database of recorded dolphin sounds.

Why you may want to work with the ambassador: As corporations become more global in their reach, the importance of nuanced cross-cultural communication has never been more important, both inside the company and out.

Why you may be wary: To date, subtle social cues have not been intelligent agents’ strong suit. While this is likely to change over time, intelligent agents will need a few more years to grow out of their socially awkward phase.

  The Detective: Connecting the Dots a Million Times a Second

The mythos of the private detective has loomed large in western culture for many decades.

In the near future, hiring intelligent detectives to solve life’s complex riddles may become as second nature as looking up trivia on Google and Wikipedia.

A Baidu-produced AI system in Chongqing recently reunited a family with their long-lost son by algorithmically aging his boyhood face and identifying him as an adult among thousands of hours of video surveillance footage.

The Emma Identity project uses natural language processing to identify works written by the same authors based on subtle patterns in their writing — to the detriment of would-be plagiarists. In the U.K., police have embarked on an algorithmic project called VALCRI to analyze crime scene data and suggest plausible hypotheses.

Pullquote share icon. Share

In the near future, hiring intelligent detectives to solve life’s complex riddles may become second nature.

Why you may want to work with the detective: It’s your personal private eye, minus the chain smoking and cynical one liners.

Why you may be wary: Machine learning systems often produce correct results that can’t be explained in human-understandable terms. Even if you know who committed the crime, the inscrutability of the detective’s algorithmic evidence trail may pose legal dilemmas with no easy solutions.

  The Oracle: Digital Prophet or Internet-Connected Ouija Board?

At IFTF we always say, “No one can predict the future.” But what if intelligent agents can? The oracle promises to question our innate assumptions by making bold predictions based on vast data sets and the hidden patterns within them.

We’ll likely never understand the basis for these predictions, but that won’t always stop them from being accurate.

Researchers at the Illinois Institute of Technology have proposed a machine-learning framework for predicting Supreme Court decisions based on the language used in proceedings while the U.K.’s Medical Research Council is pursuing an AI framework for predicting when hearts will fail from ambient data sources.

Scouring satellite data, Descartes Labs recently announced a project to predict global food shortages well before they happen.

Why you may want to work with the oracle: In this hyper-competitive, hyper-global world, every conceivable edge makes a difference.

Everyone’s appetite for eccentricity is sure to increase if the oracle’s projections for future demand and conditions are right even some of the time.

Why you may be wary: The stock market has already demonstrated how quickly algorithmic decision makers can be spooked by erroneous data.

As our faith in the oracle’s mysterious power grows, the implications of faulty conclusions become more dire.

This article first appeared on the Institute for the Future’s Future Now blog and was republished with permission.

Dylan Hendricks is the IFTF's Future 50 Partnership Co-Director. He helps industry-leading companies, innovative nonprofits and government organizations better understand and communicate the trends and paradigms that are transforming the fabric of 21st century life.

Click the RSS icon to subscribe to future articles by this author. RSS Feed