In a recent article published on bbc.com, tech reporter Zoe Kleinman tells of an Australian mother who used Siri on her iPhone 6 to phone emergency services when her year-old child stopped breathing. The incident happened in March, but when the woman approached Apple with a first-hand report of the incident, it caught the attention of 7 News in Australia. The rest is viral history, as they say.
The story is certainly a touching one that represents technology’s advancement, but I’d like to take it a step further.
What are the ramifications of a technology that helps keep us safe and secure in the modern world? What technologies exist today that can do this effectively? And most important, what are the life-saving applications of artificial intelligence?
First, more about Siri and her cousins…
The Launch of Practical AI
Siri is one of the earliest practical AI-based virtual assistants to touch our lives. Originally launched as an app on the Apple App Store, the app was integrated into the iPhone 4S as early as October 2011. 16 months earlier, Huffington Post reported the acquisition of Siri by Apple at an estimated price of between $150 and $250 million.
As a smartphone application, not many have looked at Siri as a serious contender in the AI space. Among the criticisms were Siri’s difficulty in understanding certain accents, the app not being able to pick up audio properly and so on. But much of that has changed over the years that Siri has been live.
Today, Siri is more proactive than ever. It can not only understand the natural language patterns of the user, but goes a step further and asks questions to arrive at your real objective. Even further down the road of progression, Siri is now part of Apple’s plans to integrate the technology into selected voice systems. That will allow people to check and compose messages, ask for directions, dictate notes and do a lot of other tasks while keeping their eyes on the road. To make it even safer, the intention is to not have the iOS device screen light up and distract the driver.
The reason I picked Siri as the focal point of a discussion on artificial intelligence is that this is the application that has received, by far, the most exposure to the public, the most criticism and the most attention over the past five years.
Following the bold footsteps of Siri, other companies now have their own versions of the virtual assistant – from Amazon Echo’s Alexa to Microsoft’s Cortana to Google Now, everybody wants to be in on this technology.
Here’s how similar virtual assistants rate against each other.
Siri is still the best VA, apparently, but only by a slim margin. But despite the ongoing fight to lead the bot race, it should be noted that AI is still in its infancy. While Alexa can barely search the web to find an answer, applications like IBM Watson have moved far ahead into predictive analytics and cognitive solutions. Such systems can recognize patterns, make recommendations and sift through incredible amounts of data in a matter of nanoseconds.
But coming back to our original point, how can AI help keep us safer and more secure in our surroundings?
The Safety Aspect of AI Bots
For the sake of this discussion, let us restrict our scope to only include mobile AI bots such as Siri. From a safety perspective, dialling emergency services is just one task that a bot can execute effectively. Let’s look at a few more scenarios to see how we can maximize the output of these bots where safety and security are concerned.
Scenario 1: Life-saving Services
Just like the woman in the story that BBC reported, Siri and similar VAs can be used to summon a host of emergency services such as the police, the fire brigade, paramedics and so on. This is the first stage of safety, where using technology to connect with emergency numbers works at its most basic level.
Scenario 2: Alerts, Notifications and Messages
The second stage is data transmission in emergency situations. Apps like Siri can automatically send emergency messages to anyone on your contact list. For example, children can send instant notifications to their parents letting them know where they are at any given time (Siri, tell Dad I’m going to be 30 minutes late). Obviously, some teens aren’t going to be happy doing that, but the option is definitely there if parents choose to enforce it.
Scenario 3: Launching Personal Safety Apps
Possibly the most important personal safety aspect of bots like Siri is their ability to launch a wide range of apps that are designed to keep you safe under various circumstances. As an example, Watch Over Me is one of the top downloaded personal safety apps on iOS and Android. And the great part – Siri can launch the app and have it ready for you to use. This particular app has a countdown timer that triggers an alert (like sending an SMS to certain people on your contact list with your GPS location, for example.)
These three scenarios cover most situations that might be counted as emergencies, and the implications are tremendous. The only problem is that not enough people are using these bots for such purposes. Instead, a majority of them ask irrelevant questions and dismiss the bot and never use it again.
Here are some examples:
However, since the advent of Siri’s competitors, uptake has been positive, with recent reviews looking like this:
It’s obvious that AI bots have a long way to go, but it’s reasonable to assume that the onus is on users to explore the actual usefulness of these tools in areas like personal safety. This is just one major area I’ve covered in this article; there are numerous applications of this technology that are still largely untapped. But until users start to adapt to and embrace this aspect of technology, Siri and her cousins will remain mere digital companions rather than truly useful virtual assistants.