Open artificial intelligence (AI) ecosystems, one of the top 10 emerging technologies of 2016, have been described as the next step up from systems like Amazon’s Echo, Apple’s Siri and Microsoft’s Cortana. Companies have shown that a human-like personal robot is becoming a reality through the Internet of Things.

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One of the advantages that CEOs and celebrities have over most people is that they don’t need to spend much time handling the uninteresting, time-consuming aspects of daily life: scheduling appointments, making travel plans, searching for the information they want; they have PAs, personal assistants who handle such things. But soon, many of us will be able to afford this luxury for the price of few lattes a month, thanks to the emergence of an open AI ecosystem and have a personal robot.

AI here refers, of course, to artificial intelligence. You already have a personal robot in your pocket in the form of Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Google’s OK Google, and Amazon’s Echo. There personal robot services are nifty in the way that they extract questions from speech using natural-language processing and then do a limited set of useful things, such as look for a restaurant, get driving directions, find an open slot for a meeting, or run a simple web search. But too often their response to a request for help is “Sorry, I don’t know about that” or “here’s what I found on the web.” You would never confuse a personal robot for a human PA. Moreover, these personal robot systems are proprietary and hard for entrepreneurs to extend with new features.

But over the past several years, several pieces of emerging technology have linked together in ways that make it easier to build far more powerful, human-like personal robot systems – that is, into an open AI ecosystem. This ecosystem connects not only to our mobile devices and computers – and through them to our messages, contacts, finances, calendars and work files – but also to the thermostat in the bedroom, the scale in the bathroom, the bracelet on the wrist, even the car in the driveway. The interconnection of the Internet with the Internet of Things and your own personal data, all instantly available almost anywhere via spoken conversations with a personal robot, could unlock higher productivity and better health and happiness for millions of people within the next few years.

By pooling anonymised health data and providing personalised health advice to individuals, such personal robot systems should lead to substantial improvements in health and reductions in the costs of health care. Applications of personal robots to financial services could reduce unintentional errors, as well as intentional (fraudulent) ones – offering new layers of protection to an aging population.

Personal Robot

The secret ingredient in this personal robot technology that has been largely lacking to date, is context. Up to now, machines have been largely oblivious to the details of our work, our bodies, our lives. A human PA knows when you are interruptible, stressed, bored, tired or hungry. The PA knows who and what is important to you, and also what you would prefer to avoid. Personal robot systems are gaining the ability to acquire and interpret contextual cues so that they can gain these skills as well. Although, initially these personal robot assistants will not outperform the human variety, they will be useful – and roughly a thousand times less expensive.

Various companies have already demonstrated personal robot systems that have some of these capabilities. Microsoft Research built a personal robot that knows when you are too busy to take a call (and which calls should ring through regardless) and that automatically schedules meetings at times you would likely choose yourself. Other companies such as have introduced personal robot services that search for flights that suit your preferences and constraints based on simple plain-English requests.

Just as discretion and loyalty are prized among human PAs, digital versions will succeed only to the extent that we trust them with our security and privacy. And the digital personal robot will need to act in the best interests of the user, once it figures out what those are. These are interesting challenges for the personal robot community.

This post originally appeared on GE Reports.

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