Skip to main content

Virtual assistants are the future

By Brant Ward
April 4, 2014 -- Updated 2327 GMT (0727 HKT)
Cortana, from the Halo video game series, is the voice of the new virtual assistant for Windows Phone 8.1
Cortana, from the Halo video game series, is the voice of the new virtual assistant for Windows Phone 8.1
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Microsoft added the voice of Cortana to its Windows Phone 8.1
  • Brant Ward: The age of the virtual assistant is here to stay
  • Today's artificial intelligence systems are just scratching the surface, he says
  • Ward: Future virtual assistants will offer more capabilities and personas

Editor's note: Brant Ward is senior director of advanced speech design at Nuance Communications, a company that provides voice and language solutions for businesses. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN) -- The age of the virtual assistant is here to stay with Microsoft adding the voice of Cortana to its Windows Phone 8.1.

I'm old enough to remember the days when certain computing tasks required a steep learning curve. Now it seems almost magical that I can tell my virtual assistant to remind me to take out the garbage when I get home or call my mom when I get busy.

The best part is that when it speaks to me, it does so in a way that allows me to believe, for a brief moment, that I'm interacting with another person. That's because these virtual assistants sound so human.

Brant Ward
Brant Ward

For the creators of artificial intelligent systems, it's critical to build them so that they can facilitate emotional connection with users. When machine interactions with humans feel effortless, natural and "real," that's the ultimate metric of success.

We're just getting started. Today's artificial intelligence systems are just scratching the surface of what's possible for personal assistants, advisors and maybe, in some cases, true companions. Indeed, the machine-human relationship in the movie "Her" may not seem so far-fetched in the decades to come.

Future virtual assistants will offer far more capabilities and can be personalized for each person. Why should we settle for the voice that companies choose for us?

We've known for quite some time that typically female voices are preferred, based on their ability to be heard in a clear manner across a broad range of devices. Of course, female voices also tend to be trusted more than male voices.

However, if there is one request heard over and over again, it's for more and varied choices in the persona of these virtual assistants, along with greater control over their spoken voice.

Creating text-to-speech, or TTS, can be a difficult task. The more human the system needs to sound the more data needs to be collected. Often times this requires massive amounts of linguistic and acoustic information, based on recordings of real humans.

Fortunately, the technology is rapidly evolving. Future modeling techniques, where TTS voices are made from mathematical models of its human counterparts, will be lifelike enough to simulate human speech. They will also allow more rapid voice creation, allowing a previously unachievable level of personalization, where each person could even pick his or her unique voice for a virtual assistant.

Modeling technology will also make possible the combination of different voice traits. For example, the deep qualities of a voice similar to James Earl Jones could be combined with the unorthodox speaking style of someone like Jack Nicholson.

Microsoft took a page from the gaming world by basing Cortana on the character from the Halo video game series. Perhaps future voices in our devices will be as readily available to manipulate to create a cacophony of recognizable personal assistants from favorite film and TV actors, radio hosts, family members, comedians -- the sky would be the limit.

Whether it's a character from our favorite game or movie, or a persona created by users themselves, we could allow our virtual assistants the freedom to keep us entertained as well as informed.

While there is a fine line between personalization and novelty, I see us on a collision course for having more intelligent conversations with our digital assistants in the years ahead. The gadget-oriented systems of today will continue to grow and adapt to our ever-expanding needs, and the more they learn about us, the more they can assist us.

When looking at the challenges facing humanity, whether it's eradicating disease, solving our planet's renewable energy needs, or even colonizing other worlds, it's worth pondering if it will be the humans or the intelligence systems that we create that will tackle these problems. And will we be listening if it's the virtual assistants that are doing the work?

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1516 GMT (2316 HKT)
Whitney Barkley says many for-profit colleges deceive students, charge exorbitant tuitions and make false promises
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2048 GMT (0448 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says the time has come to decide whether we really want police empowered to shoot those they believe are 'fleeing felons'
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1432 GMT (2232 HKT)
Bill Frelick says a tool of rights workers is 'naming and shaming,' ensuring accountability for human rights crimes in conflicts. But what if wrongdoers know no shame?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 0243 GMT (1043 HKT)
Jay Parini says, no, a little girl shouldn't fire an Uzi, but none of should have easy access to guns: The Second Amendment was not written to give us such a 'right,' no matter what the NRA says
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 1340 GMT (2140 HKT)
Terra Ziporyn Snider says many adolescents suffer chronic sleep deprivation, which can indeed lead to safety problems. Would starting school an hour later be so wrong?
August 29, 2014 -- Updated 1330 GMT (2130 HKT)
Peggy Drexler says after all the celebrity divorces, it's tempting to ask the question. But there are still considerable benefits to getting hitched
August 28, 2014 -- Updated 2305 GMT (0705 HKT)
The death of Douglas McAuthur McCain, the first American killed fighting for ISIS, highlights the pull of Syria's war for Western jihadists, writes Peter Bergen.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2242 GMT (0642 HKT)
Former ambassador to Syria Robert Ford says the West should be helping moderates in the Syrian armed opposition end the al-Assad regime and form a government to focus on driving ISIS out
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1321 GMT (2121 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says a great country does not deport thousands of vulnerable, unaccompanied minors who fled in fear for their lives
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1319 GMT (2119 HKT)
Robert McIntyre says Congress is the culprit for letting Burger King pay lower taxes after merging with Tim Hortons.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2335 GMT (0735 HKT)
Wesley Clark says the U.S. can offer support to its Islamic friends in the region most threatened by ISIS, but it can't fight their war
August 27, 2014 -- Updated 1126 GMT (1926 HKT)
Jeff Yang says the tech sector's diversity numbers are embarrassing and the big players need to do more.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2053 GMT (0453 HKT)
America's painful struggle with racism has often brought great satisfaction to the country's rivals, critics, and foes. The killing of Michael Brown and its tumultuous aftermath has been a bonanza.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 2019 GMT (0419 HKT)
Ed Bark says in this Emmy year, broadcasters CBS, ABC and PBS can all say they matched or exceeded HBO. These days that's no small feat
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1919 GMT (0319 HKT)
Rick Martin says the death of Robin Williams brought back memories of his own battle facing down depression as a young man
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1558 GMT (2358 HKT)
David Perry asks: What's the best way for police officers to handle people with psychiatric disabilities?
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1950 GMT (0350 HKT)
Julian Zelizer says it's not crazy to think Mitt Romney would be able to end up at the top of the GOP ticket in 2016
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2052 GMT (0452 HKT)
Roxanne Jones and her girlfriends would cheer from the sidelines for the boys playing Little League. But they really wanted to play. Now Mo'ne Davis shows the world that girls really can throw.
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 1629 GMT (0029 HKT)
Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider say a YouTube video apparently posted by ISIS seems to show that the group has a surveillance drone, highlighting a new reality: Terrorist groups have technology once only used by states
August 25, 2014 -- Updated 2104 GMT (0504 HKT)
Kimberly Norwood is a black mom who lives in an affluent neighborhood not far from Ferguson, but she has the same fears for her children as people in that troubled town do
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2145 GMT (0545 HKT)
It apparently has worked for France, say Peter Bergen and Emily Schneider, but carries uncomfortable risks. When it comes to kidnappings, nations face grim options.
August 26, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
John Bare says the Ice Bucket Challenge signals a new kind of activism and peer-to-peer fund-raising.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1231 GMT (2031 HKT)
James Dawes says calling ISIS evil over and over again could very well make it harder to stop them.
August 24, 2014 -- Updated 0105 GMT (0905 HKT)
As the inquiry into the shooting of Michael Brown continues, critics question the prosecutor's impartiality.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 2247 GMT (0647 HKT)
Newt Gingrich says it's troubling that a vicious group like ISIS can recruit so many young men from Britain.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1450 GMT (2250 HKT)
David Weinberger says Twitter and other social networks have been vested with a responsibility, and a trust, they did not ask for.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1103 GMT (1903 HKT)
John Inazu says the slogan "We are Ferguson" is meant to express empathy and solidarity. It's not true: Not all of us live in those circumstances. But we all made them.
August 22, 2014 -- Updated 1223 GMT (2023 HKT)
Retired Lt. Gen. Mark Hertling says he learned that the territory ISIS wants to control is amazingly complex.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1951 GMT (0351 HKT)
Cerue Garlo says Liberia is desperate for help amid a Ebola outbreak that has touched every aspect of life.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1742 GMT (0142 HKT)
Eric Liu says Republicans who want to restrict voting may win now, but the party will suffer in the long term.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1538 GMT (2338 HKT)
Jay Parini: Jesus, Pope and now researchers agree: Wealth decreases our ability to sympathize with the poor.
August 21, 2014 -- Updated 1200 GMT (2000 HKT)
Judy Melinek offers a medical examiner's perspective on what happens when police kill people like Michael Brown.
August 19, 2014 -- Updated 2203 GMT (0603 HKT)
It used to be billy clubs, fire hoses and snarling German shepherds. Now it's armored personnel carriers and flash-bang grenades, writes Kara Dansky.
August 20, 2014 -- Updated 1727 GMT (0127 HKT)
Maria Haberfeld: People who are unfamiliar with police work can reasonably ask, why was an unarmed man shot so many times, and why was deadly force used at all?
ADVERTISEMENT