December 20, 2014      

When speaking, more areas of the brain are involved in that activity than during any other mental function.

“Although we usually find it effortless to understand other people when they speak, parsing the speech stream is an impressive perceptual feat,” say recent studies on the importance the brain places on the human ability to speak, to be heard, and to hear.

The novelty that was Siri on first arrival in 2011 has now, in two short years, suddenly become serious business with a solid place in robotics.

More important than a robot’s ability to fold laundry, vacuum carpets or to lift people from bed is for a robot to possess understanding enough to listen to and to speak with a human.

2015 will witness three such language-able robots – at very affordable prices – entering into homes and businesses. What exactly will happen next is anyone’s guess; but most assuredly what it will do is to change everything we now know and feel about robots and their place among us.

This changes everything

For the first time in the 200,000 years that humans have been speaking to one another, a new voice has been added to daily life, that of a personal robot.

It’s a profound moment for humanity, a real shake-up in the common ways in which we live, work and interact with families, friends, colleagues and neighbors; and a mighty lucrative investment opportunity in a personal robot that could quickly and easily affect many millions of consumers.

The power of human language is being infused into machines that will live with humans and share their lives.

See related: The Three Amigos: Jimmy, Pepper and Jibo

Stanford’s futurist, Paul Saffo, sees it as a natural progression: “We’re moving more and more towards an interface like the interface we have with each other. Our whole trend is toward ever more intimate interactions with machines […] and with each phase, machines are doing something ever more central to our lives.”

Moreover – and we all know it’s going to happen sooner than later – when will industrial and mobile robotics begin to use human speech to communicate?

For that matter, once a standard is set for “voice” communication, even existing in-home electronics will quickly take on voice communication with the household members.

For instance, the Nest Learning Thermostat as the website says: “learns your schedule, programs itself and can be controlled from your phone. Teach it well and the Nest Thermostat can lower your heating and cooling bills up to 20%.”

Why bother to use a phone to program it by hand? Why not just speak to the Nest from your phone; or when home ask Nest to report on the home environment and to offer suggestions for improvement?

If hundreds of thousands, maybe millions, of people are daily speaking with personal robots at home, how long then can other home robotics/electronics, plus industrial and mobile robots remain silent? Not very long!

Personal robots communicating with their owners via human speech will force all electronics to follow.

Especially as Stanford’s Paul Saffo insists: We’re moving “towards an interface like the interface we have with each other.” That interface is speech.

The Siri Effect on robotics

The proof that personal robots and human speech communication will come to pass quickly and naturally is evident from the effect Siri has had on humans in the short time (Apple introduced Siri in October 2011, 16 months after acquiring the technology for a reported $150 to $250 million) since being installed on the Apple iPhone. At a 2010 tech conference, Siri co-founder Tom Gruber demonstrated the app’s reach.

Siri “was no ordinary iPhone app, but the progeny of the largest artificial intelligence project in U.S. history: a Defense Department-funded undertaking that sought to build a virtual assistant that could reason and learn.

“In 2003, the agency’s investment arm, DARPA, tapped the non-profit research institute SRI International to lead a five-year, 500-person effort to build a virtual assistant, one the government hoped might yield software to help military commanders with both information overload and office chores. Although it wasn’t the project’s mission, this helper, the Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes, or CALO, would ultimately provide the inspiration and model for Siri.”

Revolutionary is not too strong a word for how the Siri Effect has changed us.

We’ve added Google Plus and Cortana, as well as the Hollywood movie Her to exemplify the swift pace with which Siri-esque elements have allowed her the conquest of Smartphone communication … cinema – and the rest of us.

“Siri is chapter one of a much longer, bigger story,” says Dag Kittlaus, in a recent issue of Wired. “He should know … he helped create Siri. So did his fellow co-founders, Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham.”

The trio are now about going way beyond Siri with their newest project, Viv. “In time, they assert, their [new] creation will be able to use your personal preferences and a near-infinite web of connections to answer almost any query and perform almost any function.

“The vision is very significant,” says Oren Etzioni, a renowned AI expert who heads the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence. “If this team is successful, we are looking at the future of intelligent agents and a multibillion-dollar industry.”

Personal robots with “do” engines, not search engines

Inevitably all of the trio’s efforts will wend a way into the operating systems of personal robotics. Jimmy, Pepper, and Jibo already possess elements of Siri’s capabilities right now. It’s but a few months in the hands of innovative developers around the world that will witness these nascent capabilities beginning to burgeon.

Kittlaus and his mates are about creating a “do” engine, as they call it; and not a search engine that just returns to the browser a bunch of clickable terms. A “do” engine actually does things like orders food or plane tickets, etc.

A “do” engine is exactly what a personal robot should be as well. And “doing” is how Etzioni’s multi-billion dollar industry will arise. Personal robots with “do” engines possessing the connectedness of Viv will find a comfortable place in any home and under any situation.

Jimmy, Pepper and Jibo need not be able to fold clothes, lift someone out of a bed or vacuum the carpets. They merely have to be “do” engines and communicators to revolutionize households around the world.

The power of language

Of course, all of this “doing” and communicating is done using the power of human language, probably humanity’s greatest gift.

“The number of sentences that an ordinary person is capable of speaking is breathtaking,” writes Harvard’s Steven Pinker, formerly Head of Department of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at MIT. The total per person, he says, is “At least 1020 (a one followed by twenty zeros, or a hundred million trillion).”

A “do” engine-equipped personal robot that had acquired “some” of this vast human language-making ability would be quite the valuable asset to both its owner as well as with businesses almost anywhere.

Here’s one example that is a distinct possibility: in the kitchen with Jibo.

Cooking with Jibo

While watching Jibo’s very slick video advert, I was struck seeing Jibo in the kitchen with a human as she prepared some food.

I looked at that scene and thought, goodbye cook books. Goodbye Martha Stewart. Then again, I thought, hello to all cook books. Yes, Jibo could offer up every cook book in existence!

Imagine if you will an afternoon of cooking with Jibo; imagine again if Jibo’s voice could be that of Martha Stewart, and knew the cook’s name? What a partnership that could be; what an uplift to an afternoon in the kitchen.

The Martha Stewart Empire will be licking its chops (sorry for the pun) over this possibility.

So there’s Martha Stewart’s voice eliciting from Jibo instructing the cook on how to prepare the perfect souffle.

Then Jibo, I mean Martha, suggests a Pouilly-Fuisse to go with the souffle. She adds that two nearby wine shops have a nice bottle in stock, and that one of the shops delivers. The shop is also offering a two-for-one special.

The cook agrees (who could refuse Martha Stewart?). Two bottles of Pouilly-Fuisse are ordered. If, Martha continues, the wine is ordered using a Visa card, Visa will discount the wine by 10 percent. Out comes the Visa card.

No bother, Jibo already knows the card number. And as an added bonus, the cook can also get videos of Martha Stewart’s Cooking School downloaded to Jibo for a small additional cost. Again who can refuse Martha?

As the souffle slips in the oven, Martha and the cook banter over the history of the souffle, bonding over a glass or two of Pouilly-Fuisse.

See the potential here?

It borders on the otherworldly, but it will soon become commonplace in near every home.

Now the fun starts.