As the need for virtual assistants has risen, writing for AI (Artificial intelligence) is becoming a hot job in the Silicon Valley. The big apps and software like Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not run by software engineers alone. There are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic and creative type of people who work along with engineering guys to work with the AI.
Robin Ewing was working just as a writer in Hollywood, pitching pilots to film studios and writing TV scripts until recently. Now she has been hired to apply her creative talent toward building the personality of a virtual assistant, animated by artificial intelligence and is used to interact with sick patients.
Working with Sophie, a software program which can be downloaded to a smart phone, Ewing has trained the virtual nurse. The virtual nurse reminds users to check their medication, asks them how they are feeling or if they are in a pain. Then it sends the data to the real doctor.
The virtual assistants like the one developed by Ewing and the engineering team are designed to perform more of the prosaic tasks such as reading through e-mails, sending meeting or appointment reminders, or even turning off the lights as you shout across the room. This is a lot more different than the normal Hollywood characters built by Ewing who are put through adventures, personal trials or plot twists to keep the audience engaging.
But we can see a new age of start-ups based on bots whose products will be soon seen flooding the market are engaged with developing more ambitious bots that can interact seamlessly with human beings.
This brings writers into the picture as this new wave of technology is distinguished by the ability to chat. The work of the writer for AI is to make sure that the conversation should feel more natural. Designers for Amazon’s Alexa have built humanizing ‘hmms’ and ‘ums’ into her responses to questions. Also, Apple’s Siri is known for the wry jokes as well as the ability to beat box upon request.
When it comes to fiction, writers for the artificially intelligent virtual assistants create a life story for their bots. For the medical and productivity apps, writers have to make character decisions of whether the bots or the virtual assistants would be workaholics, eager to work hard or self effacing. “You have to develop an entire back story — even if you never use it,” Ewing said.
Mundane tasks also require a lot of creative effort as the writers try to build the personality into the most repetitive or mechanical activities. At the start-up x.ai, a Harvard theater graduate is tasked with deciding whether its scheduling bots, Amy and Andrew, should be using emojis or addressing them by their first names. “We don’t want people saying, ‘your assistant is too casual — or too much,’ ” said Anna Kelsey, whose title is AI interaction designer. “We don’t want her to be one of those crazy people who use 15 million exclamation points.”
According to the CBInsights and Washington Post research, Virtual Assistant Start-ups gathered investments worth at least $35 million over the past year alone. This however doesn’t include the many millions spent by tech giants Google, Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft.
The investor’s increased interest in virtual assistant start-ups has been partly fueled by the rising popularity of messaging apps such as WeChat, WhatsApp, and Facebook Messenger which are also among the most widely used and downloaded smart phone applications today. The users are increasingly drawn towards the conversational platforms. Investors are seeing this and they hope to build additional features into these apps.
Virtual assistants have also gained significant boost from subsets of artificial intelligence (or the AI) known as machine learning and natural language processing, or the ability for the computers to understand speech.
In this intersection of humans and artificial intelligence, the rise of this technology is evident. It is estimated that by 2025, 12.7 million new US jobs will involve building robots or automation software. According to Forrester data, more than one-third of the workforce will work side by side with such technologies by the year 2019.
Some of the virtual assistants are already becoming the companions in the office. A bot in the productivity software Slack, named Howdy, can query employees on behalf of a boss and collate their answers into a single document. The meeting scheduling bots Amy and Andrew, developed by start-up x.ai, can be used to email back and forth with real administrative assistants.
The two nurse virtual avatars, Sophie and Molly, developed by start-ups IDAvatars and Sense.ly, respectively, ask questions from the patients about their medical condition and also try to cheer them up. Another guru virtual assistant who will teach users meditation and assist in weight loss is being developed by another start-up, Botanic.io.
According to Ewing, Users can go online and get the information they are seeking themselves in most of the cases without the need of virtual assistants, though it will take a little more time. In her own words, “So if the character doesn’t delight you, then what is the point?”
Microsoft recently conducted a meeting of its virtual assistant Cortana. The meeting consisted of six person writing team including a poet, a novelist, a playwright and a former TV writer — the group debated how to answer political questions. It’s the daily morning routine of the group. The team also brainstorms Cortana’s responses to new issues.
“We will do everything possible to limit technical exploits but also know we cannot fully predict all possible human interactive misuses without learning from mistakes,” Microsoft said on its blog after it took Tay down.
A question that concerns the team about Cortana is gender. Cortana is, however crystal-clear that she is not human, team has given her a female voice because early users expressed a preference for using a female virtual assistant. Also, Apple’s Siri and Google Now also have female voices by default, though they are configurable to be a male.
Still, the team insists that Cortana isn’t a woman. “She knows that gender is a biological construct, and since she’s not biological, she has no gender,” Harrison said. “She’s proud of her AI-ness.”
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