Although it had been a while since I saw the original Star Wars trilogy, within minutes of watching The Force Awakens I immediately was reminded of the essential and integral role robots play in the films. Not only do they have distinct personalities, they have emotional intelligence, guiding and complementing their human counterparts, and acting (both literally and figuratively) as wingmen. From the co-piloting abilities of the droids to the etiquette protocol and translation assistance that C-3PO provides, the assistive nature of these machines beckons a future with even tighter, more natural integration between technology and society.
We have entered what MIT professors Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee term “the second machine age,” an era in which we are learning to harness the power of digital technologies to apply massive data sets, algorithms, and machine-learning capabilities that improve how we do things. Although still nascent, the robots and virtual assistants currently being developed leverage large amounts of data and knowledge to determine a person’s intent, process the request, and then respond and react appropriately.
Inference, not interference
But today’s technology doesn’t stop with call-and-response activities. One of the goals of machine-learning and AI is to automate certain tasks by replicating how a human would process, handle, and perform them. This means that as denizens of “the second machine age,” we are beginning to design new systems that can successfully handle complex problems and find alternative options when an unforeseen complication arises.
This human-machine experience becomes even richer when systems are able to recognize and leverage interpersonal factors such as body language and tone to understand and emulate human intention, instead of requiring specific directives. Machines that can learn the subtleties of human behavior and simply know what action best matches the environment and situation have endless potential. These systems are not only assistive and able to solve complex problems, but are also able to classify information as positive or disappointing and respond empathetically in tone and gesture. Starting to sound like a familiar gold-plated droid?
We are quickly approaching this level of contextual interaction and problem-solving capabilities, which is, at its core, what C-3PO and the protocol droids do—they empathetically assist. And it is the way they respond that help foster deeper relationships between man and machine, not only helping us accomplish tasks, but providing a sounding board, a second opinion, or basic advice. As we continue to make advancements in robotics, sensors, cognitive computing, and artificial intelligence, we are charting toward a future where intelligent machines not only exist, but become an extension of ourselves, working toward a common goal. We are entering a new era—one full of partnership and promise…
May the Force be with you.