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Your virtual assistant is getting a lot bossier
Source: Steven Overly

For a tiny tabletop robot, ElliQ has a lot of opinions.

When the weather is nice, it suggests a walk. When it's time to take medication, the device is ready with a reminder. Haven't spoken to relatives in awhile? It thinks a call is in order.

Israel-based Intuition Robotics is developing the virtual assistant specifically for the elderly, a population shown to be more vulnerable to social isolation and physical inactivity. The founders expect that frequent engagement with a robot that makes positive lifestyle suggestions will promote physical and mental wellness, said chief executive Dor Skuler.

"Think of it as a fully autonomous agent," Mr Skuler said. "You tell it what your goals are, and it tries to measure how you're doing on those goals and suggests activities accordingly to help you meet those goals."

Advancements in artificial intelligence have given rise to in-home virtual assistants, devices that listen and respond as we can command them to turn off the lights, purchase items online or order restaurant takeout.

ElliQ (pronounced L-E-Q) takes things further than that: proactively recommending ways in which humans could be living better lives, from getting more exercise to watching educational videos. Humans may not be taking direct orders from their technology, at least not yet, but smart devices could soon wield much greater influence over our decisions.

"If we're focusing just on virtual assistance, I think so far the interaction has been very much human-initiated," said William Mark, president of information and computing sciences at nonprofit research institute SRI International. "Of course there are lots of examples of machines telling us what to do."

Indeed, machines prod humans all day. Your alarm rings to keep you from sleeping through a morning meeting. Your car beeps when you've started the engine but haven't fastened your seat belt. Your Netflix account suggests movies to watch based on your viewing history.

Virtual assistant robots are different in that they are designed to help us accomplish tasks. They can already learn when we typically wake up and go to sleep, what we watch on television and what we buy online. As the devices become capable of doing even more, they will store and analyse that information, too.

ElliQ monitors the user's movements to ensure its suggestions are well-timed, Mr Skuler said. The user might prefer to take walks in the morning or value quiet time in the evening over listening to music.

Currently, ElliQ is programmed with seven optional goals, such as learning something new each day, being more physically active or talking to relatives more often. The company sets one of the goals for you: developing a "positive affinity" for the robot.

"Meaning we don't annoy you to the point you unplug us," Mr Skuler said.

It's not uncommon for people to develop bonds, irrational as they might seem, with technology. It's why we give names to our cars or yell at our malfunctioning computer, for example.

Virtual assistant systems can take many cues from the way humans interact, said Professor Justine Cassell from the Carnegie Mellon University. In her research, Professor Cassell programs robots to replicate common features of human conversations that help people to establish trust. For example, the machine might divulge information about itself before asking the human for information — creating a sense of equality.

Of course, as virtual assistants gain greater influence, it's easy to conjure up dystopian scenarios in which technology starts to actually exert authority. It's one thing for a system to suggest you go for a walk after watching television for hours and another for a system to power off the TV until you've complied.

"The machines that we interact with need to be designed to keep sight of allowing people to maintain that very important sense of autonomy, that they are in control of their existence," warns Professor Cassell.

-Washington Post

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