Feature Story

When Artificial Intelligence Meets the Internet of Everything

by Jason Deign

Moves are underway to make today's artificial intelligence interfaces even smarter. What might happen when they connect to the Internet of Everything?

Are you one of the many people who think Apple’s Siri is a gimmick? Then prepare to be impressed. Artificial intelligence (or ‘AI’) interfaces are about to get a lot smarter. And if they start connecting to the Internet of Everything they could be a lot more informed, too.

Apple launched Siri along with the iPhone 4S in 2011. It was obvious the voice-activated help feature was much more advanced than previous software assistants, such as Microsoft’s widely disliked Clippit application. Still, users were also quick to point out Siri’s shortcomings.

Apple had clearly done a good job of giving Siri an entertaining store of witty one-liners. But the AI had problems with complex requests. However, Siri’s creators have not given up. In fact, they, and a number of competitors, are working on something much better.   

Viv, from the team that invented Siri, is leading in the hype stakes. Wired called it: “A radical new AI that does anything you ask.” The magazine said a former executive for Google now, a Siri competitor, was “blown away” by the technology.

But Google is working on a new AI, too. In January it bought a British startup, DeepMind, which is acknowledged as having some of the finest brains in the AI business. Meanwhile, Microsoft is back in the AI game with Cortana, billed as “the most personal smartphone assistant.”

Even Facebook, the social media platform, is pursuing an AI strategy. It pulled machine learning guru Yann LeCun in to lead a dedicated group last year. Obviously, the main aim of these and other projects is to create AIs that can do more with the information they have to hand. But that information is growing exponentially, too. By 2020 there could be as many as 50 billion things connected to the Internet. Today’s AI creators want their future inventions to tap into this rich store of information. In June, for example, Apple revealed Siri could be used to issue commands to devices controlled by its HomeKit device control framework.

“You can tell Siri you are ‘going to bed’ and it could dim the lights, lock your doors, close the garage door, and set the thermostat,” says Apple.

Viv also appears to be tailor-made for the Internet of Everything. The Viv Labs team, which split off from Apple after the death of Steve Jobs, is “heads down right now”, according to a source, and was unable to comment. But Viv’s website claims: “Viv is a global platform that enables developers to plug into and create an intelligent, conversational interface to anything. It is the simplest way for the world to interact with devices, services, and things everywhere.”

What would happen if an AI such as Viv could access the Internet of Everything? Already, the Internet of Things, or IoT, is simplifying chores like finding parking spaces or saving energy. With a truly advanced AI, you could in theory take this much, much further. Imagine being able to ask your phone how to get to the nearest piece of sunny parkland, for instance. Or having your iPad warn you off taking the train for a while because of a crowded station. If such visions make you wonder whether a Skynet-style machine intelligence could be about to take over the world, rest easy. Ian Pearson, of the British futurology consultants Futurizon, believes it could still be a while before the union of AI and IoT achieves its full potential.

“It’ll be a walled garden, the Internet of Things,” he says. “There may be lots of different operating systems and suppliers which won’t always be compatible with each other. You can’t assume an artificial intelligence would be able to get round that.”

He also points out that AI and IoT vendors alike might well have a vested interest in giving you certain types of information over others. In other words, the Siri of tomorrow might claim to be acting on your behalf while feeding you suggestions from advertisers.

“It won’t be as squeaky clean as you would like it to be,” Pearson warns. “People are developing this for commercial advantage. ”

We have seen this before, he says, in the development of the web. Even today, its usefulness is tempered by a heavy dose of advertising, malware, and general trash.

As they approach the Internet of Everything, AI developers need to be aware of this heritage.  They should seek to avoid the kinds of mistakes and over-promises that have led to user frustration over artificial assistants in the past. If they do that, there is still hope the next generation of Siris might be more than just a pretty interface.


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