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Internet of Things

Not Without my Agents

Are you still typing, or do you dictate? How autonomous software agents are influencing our interactions with technology.

27 Jan. 2016

It looks so easy in the ads: "Siri, remind me about my wife's birthday," the man says, and the electronic voice from the smartphone confirms: "I created a reminder for you." Typing? Outdated. Autonomous agents are penetrating into more and more areas of life: programs that literally read our desires off our lips and act accordingly.

Whether it's Siri, Cortana or the "Now" voice from Google – all major providers have integrated digital assistant systems that link your smartphone permanently with the internet and convert instructions at lightning speed into concrete actions: dial telephone numbers, search for a term on the internet or manage calendar entries.

Electronic playthings
In the classic film "2001 – A Space Odyssey," the villain is HAL, a neurotic semi-intelligent system that eradicates the majority of the space ship's crew. Siri and Cortana are anything but menacing. Quite the contrary. with cheeky, ironic and funny answers to questions like "What is the meaning of life" and "Why was I born," these disembodied voices quickly earned a cult status among users.

Software agents are much more than just a game. Market researchers Gartner actually describes them as one of the ten most important IT trends of the past year. Because spoken language is significantly more intuitive than pressing buttons or pawing through menus, the analysts are promising a big future for the agents. "We will be reaching the 'post-app phase' in the coming five years," says David Cearley from Gartner. Companies should already be thinking about how they can use dynamic agents and new interfaces for their applications, Cearley recommends .

Science Fiction or reality?
Online shopping giant Amazon is on board. While the primary function of its "Echo" loudspeaker involves bringing wireless music into the home, it can also be activated using voice commands to execute a variety of actions. Echo can answer questions, turn compatible smart home devices on and off and read audio books out loud. And Echo has another special feature: the loudspeaker listens.

To get its attention, you just have to address it directly, not unlike the way the heroes of "Star Trek" talk to the Enterprise's computer. Because however voice commands must first be interpreted, Echo uploads the raw audio data into the cloud and works with the results returned to it.

Computers don't understand nuances
The technology is still in its baby shoes, though: "Right now many conversations with computers are broken off after just a few sentences because they don't make sense. Computers have a hard time grasping social references or sub-lingual contextual information. Humor and irony for example are extremely tough for them to understand," notes Rob High , Lead Developer at IBM for the Watson Project. Only once those barriers are mastered will digital assistants truly come to dominate the scene. Even so, software agents are already in use in a variety of areas, using their analytic skills to assist human users — such as in collating information in news streams on social networks, or filtering unwanted content from websites and communities.

This trend will surely accelerate in the coming years, Johannes Jüngst from the Fraunhofer Institut IAO believes: "Voice interactions with cars, televisions, the household or sports —it's all going to be 'normal' in the future.“ It won't be long before classic search engines such as Google, Bing and Yahoo seem as dated to us as the punch card computers of the 1960s. "The question is really which of the current providers will manage to survive and whether an there's an opening for an entirely new, platform-independent assistant service to establish itself on the market," Jüngst says.

Who will lead the dialog?
The automotive industry in particular seems primed for rapid development in this field. "In five to ten years a majority of in-vehicle services and functions will be controlled using normal speech or gestures," says Ralf Lamberti , Director of User Interaction & Connected Car at Mercedes-Benz. What remains unclear at this point is who will ultimately be leading that dialog with the user. He sees tension between the technology and a gushing source of income for technology providers: advertising.

There are no ads in oral dialog, meaning few opportunities for cross-selling. That said, voice systems do use a variety of tools to forge user loyalty for the long term. This is part of the reason why Cortana and Google Now are no longer restricted to their own platforms, but rather will soon be available for other systems as well.

Autonomous agents represent an exciting facet of the digital transformation. CeBIT delivers the broader picture. Presenting under the motto "d!conomy: join – create – succeed," experts from around the world will discuss the opportunities and strategies for a digital economy.