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Improving productivity with your Robot Assistant

How can I help youOur current phase of technological evolution is advancing at great speed: driverless cars have driven hundreds of thousands of miles on roads in the United States and parts of Europe, thought-controlled robotic prosthetics are helping people who have lost limbs regain the ability to walk and ‘grasp’ every day items in their hands, machine learning — the ability of a software program to actively learn from previous texts and submit suggestions — in our smartphones and computer systems nudges us towards which movie to watch or book to buy.

There is another seemingly mundane but profoundly important application of this technology: to better managers ourselves and our time. The future of productivity is coming, and it will rely on Artificial Intelligence.

The underlying technology behind all of the advances in robotic technology mentioned above is Artificial Intelligence (A.I.). A.I., often referred to as the ability of computers to think like humans, has been a main goal of many computer and cognitive scientists for the last sixty to eighty years. And one of the principle goals of A.I. developers has long been to help humans be more productive.

With the exception of commercial ventures such as Google’s search and related products, the largest known A.I. project to date was instigated by the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). In 2003 DARPA contracted SRI International to lead a reported $200 million, five-year project to build a virtual assistant. The project consisted of up to 500 experts in machine learning, natural language processing, knowledge representation, human–computer interaction, flexible planning, and behavioral studies who were tasked with building a Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes (CALO).

The goal of CALO was to become what the technology industry now calls a ‘cognitive assistant,’ – what many of us think of as administrative or personal assistants. This ambitious goal envisioned a software program that learns by ‘observing and learning from the past, acting in the present and anticipating the future.’ CALO would be able to assist its user with organizing and prioritizing information, mediating human communication, resource allocation, task management decisions, and scheduling and prioritizing.

In 2008, with the agreement of DARPA, a private company co-founded by three of the engineers from SRI International was spun out of the CALO project . The company was registered as SIRI Inc. and by 2010 was acquired by Apple and launched as part of the iPhone operating system in October 2011.

So disruptive was this realization of the cognitive assistant that at the time of Siri’s launch, then Google CEO, Eric Schmidt called it a competitive threat to Google’s core search business. In other words, it had the potential to fundamentally reshape the way we interact with information.

Schmidt elaborated on this potential in his recent book: The New Digital Age – Reshaping the future of people, nations and business:

Centralizing the many moving parts of one’s life into an easy to use almost intuitive system of information management and decision-making will give all interactions with technology an effortless feel. These systems will free us of many small burdens, including errands to do list and assorted monitoring tasks – that today add stress and chip away at our mental focus throughout the day. By relying on these integrated systems, which will encompass both the professional and the personal sides of our lives, we’ll be able to use our time more effectively each day.

Suggestion engines that offer alternative terms to help a user find what she is looking for will be a particularly useful aid in efficiency by consistently stimulating our thinking process, ultimately enhancing our creativity, not preempting it. So there will be plenty of ways to procrastinate too but the point is that when you choose to be productive, you can do so with greater capacity…

…Other advances in the pipeline in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence and voice recognition will introduce efficiency into our lives by providing more seamless forms of engagement with the technology in our daily routines.

This technology will surely save many of us time in our daily affairs.

In a wide-ranging TED interview Larry Page, the CEO of Google, Inc., was asked by the interviewer, Charlie Rose, why companies fail. His answer was: “They miss the future.” Page elaborated on his theory and also indicated that advances in Artificial Intelligence would play a significant role in the future, he also said one of the pressing issues behind these advances in A.I. for every day matters was improvements in our ‘scheduling.’

Many of the articles in Harvard Business Review attest to the fact that we want to improve our ability to get more things done in a timely manner and have more work/life balance. All of which suggests that today’s breakthroughs in A.I. are tomorrow’s breakthroughs in productivity. Google, Apple and others, such as Intel and IBM, are spending hundreds of millions of dollars in A.I. research and development and patent applications as a means of providing a solution to help us manage our most precious resource – time — through the use of a personal interactive cognitive (robotic) assistant.

The Present

Despite advances in technology such as synchronized calendars and To Do Lists that integrate with our email systems, many of us still fail to achieve important goals, miss project deadlines, and forget simple day-to-day tasks.

Professor Dan Ariely, who is well known for his work in behavioral economics and books on helping us overcome irrational behavior, together with his co-author Klaus Wertenbroch concluded, ‘through empirical evidence that procrastination is a real behavioral problem,’ which impacts our work and personal life.

I find that one of the key reasons we still procrastinate and fail to achieve on many of the intentions we set, despite the above advances, is simply one of effort: technology alone cannot create sustained great results (at least not yet), it requires us to be active participants.

Google Now and Siri are already very similar to our own personal Watson (the Jeopardy winning IBM software). These personal cognitive assistants can acquire knowledge about us so they can better anticipate our wishes, learn enough about our preferences to make recommendations and when coupled with other devices such as Google’s crowd-sourced Waze mapping technology can help us with factors such as improved travel time to and from appointments to avoid road incidents.

When I tell Siri or Google Now to remind me to contact a client about some matter next time I am in the office, it stores a reminder and its geo-location positioning device pings me as I sit at my desk. If I want to collect flowers on my way home it will notify me of the closest florists on the route – it can reserve restaurant tables and in some countries Google Now can even read a restaurant menu, soon it will also check if it serves your dietary preferences before recommending the restaurant.

Through voice recognition I can dictate a text message or email and have it sent by my cognitive assistant. The more I use this technology the more it recognizes how I break down tasks and the times of day I am most productive, this helps me ensure I am most efficient on high priority tasks. The ability of today’s cognitive assistants is really quite remarkable – it just requires a little effort to get going but the results can be significant – but it is just the beginning.

Thanks to continued progress by A.I. researchers, the long-imagined potential of cognitive assistants is finally arriving. As robots become increasingly intelligent, so too do we.

Parts of this post originally appeared on Harvard Business Review. (Picture credit)