From Smartphones to Smart Spaces: SRI’s Vision of Computer Evolution

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come back with something reasonable every time. It doesn’t have to be brilliant—any more than a human being is brilliantly knowledgeable—but it does have to be intelligent enough to give you confidence that it understands you.

Roush: Do you think these dialogue-based systems will eventually replace Google-style searches?

Mark: I think it depends a lot on why you’re doing a search. True search will remain a very important thing 10 years from now, and that model won’t in any way disappear. But there are areas where we would really like a different paradigm of interaction.

Roush: Maybe a situation like, “I’ve got 45 minutes to cook dinner, can you find me a recipe based on what’s in the fridge right now or what’s on sale at the nearest supermarket?”

Mark: That’s a good example. We are all going to have to decide over time what kind of user experience we want, and it will be different for different people at different times. I could say “Dinner tonight,” and it comes back with a recommendation and I’m done. There is another experience where I want to have a dialogue—maybe I start with “Dinner tonight” and the system comes back with “How about this pasta recipe?” and my response is “You know, kind of, but I’m not in the mood for pasta, but I really like those ingredients, can you give me another dish that is kind of like this?” or “We’re going out to a fancy place tomorrow so can you give me something that’s lower in calories?” I think you’ll want that sort of interaction a lot of the time, and the technology is getting to the point where we will be able to do that more and more.

Roush: The bulk of SRI projects are government-funded, but you also do commercial research, and there’s also an active program to find spinoff opportunities. Which types of projects will lead to real-world applications for these dialogue-based interfaces?

Mark: We think of this as something that will be extremely relevant in military and civilian government applications. Think of a call center motif—to pick something that is topical, think about the IRS. The IRS staffs many, many people to answer taxpayer questions about a very complex set of rules. And most people are very dissatisfied with that service, because there are not enough resources, and you have to wait on the line a long time, and sometimes you don’t get the best answer. So dialogue-based systems could be very important [in speeding up service]. Going beyond that into the commercial world, we are engaged in a pretty large project right now, where the client doesn’t want to be named, that I think will be pretty revolutionary. We are also always looking at whether it’s reasonable to start new ventures, and one of the topics of discussion here is whether or not [dialogue-based systems] should be a venture.

Roush: Let’s talk about robotics—another area that SRI is famous for. What problems are you focusing on there?

Mark: Some of the really challenging problems have to do with real-time vision. When a human enters a room, we very quickly size up the scene and we immediately recognize the objects and decide if there is a place to sit down or a place to do something. That’s what we’re working on in computer vision—all of these things that seem relatively easy for a human. Also manipulation. Robots on the factory floor move very rapidly, but their manipulation capability is very narrow. Certain things that are very easy for humans to do are beyond the realm—I was going to say beyond the grasp, but it’s a terrible pun—of robots. We’re collaborating with researchers at government and university labs to create manipulation with human quality. That’s an example of something that’s government-sponsored, but we see that as having real impact in the commercial world over time.

Roush: Looking at the 10-year time horizon, do you think these problems of computer vision and manipulation are being solved fast enough that we’ll have robot servants in our homes by 2021? And separately from that, will we really want them? One of the old standby scenarios for home robots is elder care in places like Japan with rapidly aging populations. But do you really want to hand your elderly mother over to a robot, and are there other compelling use cases?

Mark: If you take away the 10-year boundary and ask whether we will ever see robots in the home and the workplace helping us out, my answer is unequivocally yes. The need is great. We spend time—or if we have the money, we hire people to do—cleaning and cooking and tasks where, if machines could do it, there would be a decided advantage. But it does have to be at the right price point, and … Next Page »

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Wade Roush is a freelance science and technology journalist and the producer and host of the podcast Soonish. Follow @soonishpodcast

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