11 Jan 2018 15:09 IST

Say AI: It’s all artificial and it’s here to stay

Intelligent assistants have found their way into almost all devices, as CES 2018 shows

If you’ve ever been a fan of cartoons like Dexter’s Laboratory while growing up, you’re probably familiar with the fantastical notions of science fiction depicted in them. Remote-controlled flying objects, robots and assistants that can think for themselves, and science fairs with multiple gizmos flitting in and out of the ‘human crowd’ thronging them.

Most of this isn’t fiction anymore. If you’ve followed the ongoing Consumer Electronics Show (CES 2018), then you’ll know that visuals from there are a little like your tech-infused cartoons coming to life. The show floor and beyond is dominated by tech companies — right from new startups to the giants — all of them showcasing their latest innovation; giving us a glimpse of the immediate as well as the later future.

We told you last week about how smart home products are something to watch out for, this year, and CES hasn’t disappointed. Artificial Intelligence and virtual assistants have made their way to almost every gadget one can think of. And this year, it seems like it’s all-out war between the big guns — Google Assistant and Amazon’s Alexa. The reason it’s just these two and we haven’t thrown Siri in the mix is because of how aggressively Google and Amazon are pushing their assistants to third-party hardware. Apple isn’t doing that yet.

More and more companies are adopting virtual assistants in all sorts of devices to make them compelling prospects for customers. After all, who wouldn’t want an assistant on call to do trivial chores or just get information? Having regularly been using virtual assistants, we can now safely say that they’re indeed the next big thing in tech innovation and their easy and affordable availability is testimony to companies being well on their way to harvest AI’s growing popularity.

Mirroring reality

Well then, let’s give you a peek of the devices that AI found its way to, this CES.

We talked about smart speakers and how they’re the first step towards smart homes, given their affordability. But the other devices that make up a smart home ecosystem are many — smart vacuum cleaners, refrigerators and mirrors.

Last year itself, CES witnessed smart mirrors grabbing eyeballs with concepts that showcased them being connected to smart kitchen appliances that could make you breakfast while you’re in the shower. This year, bathroom fixtures-maker Kohler took it one step further by integrating Alexa in its Verdera line of Voice Lighted mirrors.

Kohler already had smart connectivity for its bathroom product line-up, and with Alexa’s addition, users can talk to them for a host of purposes: for example, setting the optimum temperature for a shower, controlling your music and controlling the smart toilet for comforts such as warming the seat and mood lighting (yes, it’s a thing) — all by talking to the mirror. Sounds a little bit like the Snow White fairy tale, doesn’t it? “Mirror Mirror on the wall, stop the shower when I get a call.”

Switch it up

Alexa also found its way to a WiFi-enabled light switch. Not that the concept is entirely new; users could always control their smart lighting using an Amazon Echo device with a hub. But this switch from iDevices has the voice-based assistant built-in, so you can speak to it individually without needing an Echo device. The switch, called ‘Instinct’, can be used to dim or brighten lighting and also has sensors to detect motion and ambient light. It also has a built-in speaker to play your music. Which kind of begs the question, why not just get this instead of an Amazon Echo product? Well for one, sound quality may not be exactly thumping. Nonetheless, it will be interesting to see if such products, which integrate a host of functions and capabilities, will end up cannibalising standalone devices.

Augmented reality by itself is an exciting space and at this CES, New York-based Vuzix Corp has integrated it with Alexa. The company showcased its AR smart glasses that are Alexa-enabled at the show and understandably, this generated a lot of buzz. Users can call up Alexa to display information in the field of view. So it’s a little bit like Google Glass, but with an AR-centered approach and Alexa in it. The Vuzix Blade isn’t going to be cheap when it retails later this year (a whopping $1,000), but the company has said that it aims to reduce this to $500 by 2019.

Google takes on Echo Show

A big announcement came from Google, which literally plastered most of Las Vegas with Google Assistant branding (Las Vegas is where CES is held). The tech giant is teaming up with Sony, JBL, LG and Lenovo to build dedicated Google Assistant devices with displays; something like Amazon’s Echo Show.

With the Echo Show, Amazon brought video calling, recipe and lyric displays and the likes to users. Google seems to be going for the same, and the company will leverage its range of dedicated applications such as Google Duo for video conferencing, Maps for navigation display and the added advantage of YouTube for music and videos.

Google has also brought the Assistant to Android Auto so you have it on call for whatever you need to do while driving.

Cars and the future

While we are on the car topic, Chinese startup Byton pulled the covers off what it called the ‘Car of Future’ at the show. The electric car will have a range of more than 500 km on a single charge and the company plans to launch it in China by 2019 and the US and Europe by 2020.

The car boasts a panoramic display on the windshield right below the driver’s field of vision and will function as a navigation and entertainment hub. And yes, it has Alexa-enabled voice control and offers other ways of interaction such as facial recognition to unlock.

Alexa is now also on Windows 10 PCs and it will work alongside Microsoft’s Cortana. Acer, Lenovo, HP, and Asus will be offering their products with the assistant on them.

Here in India, products such as Amazon’s Echo are finding their way to households thanks to their economical pricing and focus on Indian context and skills. And if AI’s show at CES is anything to go by, we’re in for an Intelligent treat.

(The article first appeared in The Hindu BusinessLine.)