Will Machine Learning, Artificial Intelligence Give Rise to the Virtual Assistant?

A virtual assistant could ask a car to check its own oil and tell the owner if it's time for an oil change, among many other things.

by Margaret Kadifa, Houston Chronicle / October 21, 2016

(TNS) -- Within five years, the virtual assistants on smartphones — such as Siri or Cortana — should be able to talk to a refrigerator, a car or anything else that can be connected to the internet.

A virtual assistant could ask a car to check its own oil and tell the owner if it's time for an oil change. It could figure out how to fix a broken dishwasher by contacting the virtual assistant for that dishwasher's manufacturer. It could tell the coffee pot to brew a morning cup of joe.

That's the vision Andrea Sahli, senior implementation manager at noHold, presented Thursday during the Grace Hopper Celebration of Women in Computing.

"When you go to a company website, when you see a little virtual assistant that says, 'How can I help you today?' that might be us," said Sahli, whose company implements virtual assistants that provide tech support.

She's working toward a goal of having virtual assistants talk to each other and having a given virtual assistant available from any device, at any time, as long as there's an internet connection.

"We have to be able to talk to each individual device right now instead of just having one virtual assistant that comes with us wherever we are," Sahli said. "So that will be the big change in the future."

Sahli's work with virtual assistants was just one of the presentations on artificial intelligence offered Thursday at the Grace Hopper event.

At an afternoon panel, representatives at Airbnb, LinkedIn, Pinterest and Salesforce explained the role of artificial intelligence on their sites.

At Pinterest, it is used to sift through data to recommend new pins for users, said Frances Haugen, a data project manager at Pinterest.

Finding happiness

"We're dealing with these really abstract recommendation problems, like, what makes someone happy?" Haugen said. "Why would they like this living room pin versus this living room pin? Why would they like this recipe versus that recipe?"

As machine learning improves, so will Pinterest's ability to get the right recommendations to its users, Haugen said.

Natalie Parde, a Grace Hopper attendee and fourth-year Ph.D. student at the University of North Texas, is studying natural language processing, the verbal interaction between a person and a computer.

Her work is entwined in artificial intelligence.

"Artificial intelligence will enable a lot of people's lives to be easier in a lot of ways," Parde said.

Over a hundred student and early-career engineers lined up Wednesday outside the lecture halls that hosted speakers about artificial intelligence.

Attendees were there well before the start of Sahli's 9:20 a.m. talk, but rooms filled up before many could nab spots.

Over 600 attended the panel during which Haugen spoke.

The Grace Hopper conference - the 16th in 22 years - drew more than 15,000 technology industry professionals, academics and students to events at the George R. Brown Convention Center and the Toyota Center.

Attendees - the vast majority of whom were women - were there in part for inspiration and in part for networking. Women are still underrepresented in technical roles. They hold just 21.7 percent of technical roles at 60 companies employing more than 1.4 million U.S. employees, according to a report released Wednesday by the Palo Alto, Calif.-based Anita Borg Institute, which co-presented the event with the Association for Computing Machinery.

Hot topic

Artificial intelligence was a hot topic from day one, beginning with the keynote address of IBM CEO Ginni Rometty.

Machines can learn and draw conclusions, informed by much more data than humans are able to sort through or remember, she said Wednesday.

"This is going to be an era of systems that understand," Rometty said. "They reason and they learn. You can build learning into everything that you do here. And I have a very firm view that this will impact every decision that we make in the next five years."

©2016 the Houston Chronicle Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.