Please forgive me if you’ve already seen the “Iron Man” movies already. If you haven’t, you’re missing out on not just a good superhero flick but also a possible glimpse of the future for digital assistants.
In the Marvel movie series, Jarvis — that’s the super-computer assistant of Tony Stark, aka; Iron Man — starts out as a disembodied voice. You know, like Amazon Alexa, the Google Assistant, or Apple’s Siri. A few movies later Jarvis is embedded in a synthetic body and takes physical form.
What the heck does this have to do with anything? Well, it offers a bit of a precursor to what I think may eventually happen to the digital assistants of today. No, I don’t expect humanoid robotic assistants in every home. At least not for a while.
Our growing infatuation with smart speakers, however, can’t continue forever. Something has to change. And that something could be fewer speakers in the home as they consolidate into one that is always near you, wherever you are in the house. I’m all for that because I now have more smart speakers and smart displays than I have rooms in which I can put them.
I started thinking about this thanks to a small little robot you can buy today. It fits in the palm of your hand and can move about. Plus, it’s going to get a lot smarter very soon. I’m talking about the Vector robot that I bought last month.
Anki, the company which makes Vector, announced a few weeks back that it was working on Amazon Alexa integration for this pint-sized bot. I was happy to hear that, but not overly excited. After all, it seems like any device with a speaker and a microphone has, or is, getting some type of digital assistant integration.
But a few days ago, I saw a video of how Vector is getting along with a new smart companion inside his head.
Sure, it works like any other Alexa device. However, it’s the first one I’ve seen that can move around based on my commands or autonomously. So, in theory, an advanced model could just hang out nearby and follow me around the house if I wanted it to.
That’s a game changer.
Think about it: Instead of equipping most every room in the home with a smart listening and playback device, a single device — or two, just because I like robots — would always be within earshot. Or maybe it’s farther away because sometimes you may want some disconnected downtime and would rather not have a microphone hear you watching “Iron Man” for the umpteenth time.
In that future, the assistant is always connected and could even be the hub of the smart home. What’s a few more radios inside a robot, right? Couple that with sight and sound — Vector has scanning sensors as well as a camera — and now your digital assistant is better equipped to adjust the home environment based on what rooms are in use and what activities we mere humans are partaking in.
I get that this is a far-fetched future. And I know that the technology isn’t there yet. But that’s the funny thing about technology: Better tech begets even better tech and it does so at a faster rate.
Our technical advances speed up future advances.
In the case of Vector, we today have a relatively inexpensive — it costs $250— mobile rover with some autonomy, a few sensors and both an always-on cloud connection and microphone. Adding personal assistant capabilities through Alexa adds another key piece to the puzzle. And over time, robots like Vector will have more processing power, additional sensors, and improved mobility.
For the moment, Vector can only wander around for about 45 minutes on a charge. It wouldn’t surprise me if iRobot, maker of the Roomba vacuums, is already thinking about how to leverage its technology for a mobile, connected device that can wander around for hours.
There’s another obvious aspect involved too, and that’s consumer adoption of new technologies. (This is the part where you say, “No way will consumers want an “Alexa”-powered robot in the home.)
If I asked you what consumer technology has been adopted the fastest by at least 50 percent of the U.S., you’d likely guess the internet or smartphones. And those are good guesses. But based on current adoption rates and forecasts out, it’s not either of those technologies.
If I had asked you that same question three years ago, you probably wouldn’t have even thought smart speakers would be a big thing. But they are.
While having a mobile smart assistant isn’t ready for mainstream products aside from niche use cases like Alexa on Vector, I don’t think it’s that far away; maybe five years for small products — but bigger than Vector — that early adopters like me will support.
Then we’ll see if there’s real value here. And if there is, provided such products aren’t insanely expensive, I’m betting the adoption curve for these devices will be even faster than it was for the surprising market for smart speakers.
For now, I’ll just experience this vision on a very small scale once Vector’s brain mates with Alexa. It should get its software update to add this functionality in the next few weeks, so I’ll see if this idea of mobile digital assistants has the potential I think it does.