Your Virtual Assistant

Does it know you better than you know yourself?

Decisions, decisions…

In a world of unending choice we are faced with between 2,500 and 10,000 decisions to make every day[1]. It’s a tremendous mental burden, and we’ve all been stung by not getting it right – by picking the wrong dish from the menu, the wrong person to date.

But imagine if a computer could know your complete history, all your likes, dislikes, fears, foibles, hopes and dreams, and feed this to an artificial intelligence with more brainpower than you could ever dream of, so smart that it would always make the right decision. How much of your life would you be willing to let it control?

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

This is the bargain at the heart of Everything About You, a novel in which the main character, Freya, is offered everything she could ever want on a plate, so long as she hands over the reins to her virtual assistant – the ‘smartface’. The smartface has access to all her online data, gathered almost from birth, and it is super-intelligent. It can calculate what she really wants, and will direct her – decision by decision – until she gets it. Freya’s virtual assistant acts like a Sat Nav for the whole of life.

When I began writing this book, a decade ago, it wasn’t so obvious how internet companies would get to know our innermost thoughts. Alexa and Siri weren’t commonly in our homes, always listening, changing the nature of we used to consider private space. Back then, it would have seemed incredible that a company such as Cambridge Analytica could – in the words of whistleblower Christopher Wylie – target our ‘inner demons’, and have a such a resounding impact on the political landscape.

Friends and family should know us better than social media companies, yet there is an algorithm that can answer questions about people more accurately than their loved ones, based on what they have ‘liked’ on Facebook.  

Already the amount of data held on any social media user is substantial, and for the next generation it will be staggering. At present, the average child features in around 1,500 online photos by their fifth birthday[2]. ‘Sharenting’ is the term for parents over-sharing information about their kids on the web, and with all the other data-collection technologies that will soon come into play – the internet of things, and facial recognition technology – these children will find that the networked world knows who they are and where they’re coming from… and will be able to calculate, with impressive accuracy, where they are going.

virtual outlook

In Everything About You, Freya receives suggestions from her virtual assistant, and she can have a pretty good time if she does what she is told. On other days, the advice from the smartface seems baffling, but she follows all the same. She flirts outrageously with the man at the bakery, repeating words whispered into her ear by the virtual assistant, and leaves with a free chocolate brioche. Why? Because on the internet there are ‘a zillion public conversations by this guy freely available’. If you know what words someone likes to use, what is sacred to them, and maybe one or two of their inner demons, then manipulation is within your grasp. If you know what makes someone tick, you can wind them up.

The trouble is that when all the intelligence is gathered in the technology, it becomes almost risky not to trust it.

I tend to get angry with Sat Navs when I think they’re taking me on a stupid route. I’ll veer off stubbornly, muttering abuse, only to find myself stuck in traffic or taking twice as long. In the book, Freya finds herself being led down darker and darker paths, and has to beat down her instincts in order to keep going, yet she has faith in the artificial intelligence, so much smarter than her own.

As the smartworld wraps around and blueprints us, from public profile to inner demons, it seems quite possible that an artificial intelligence could possess the information required to make certain decisions on our behalf. As smart gets smarter, we will trust AIs to fill our fridges, plan our holidays, detect illnesses, fill in surveys, hold conversations with the water company and perhaps even go on virtual dates. Google has recently unveiled the next incarnation of its virtual assistant – Google Duplex – which can ring a hairdresser or a restaurant, hold a conversation in a natural tone, and even dodge curveball questions to make you a booking. With this technology coming into play, it could be that in a decade or two, you won’t pick up the phone without the first question in your mind being: ‘person or bot?’  




Intelligent Assistants – a bit of history

The first step away from search engines and towards intelligent assistants was marked by Google’s launch in 2012 of Google Now, which offered “information that you need throughout your day, before you even ask”. It tried to predict what users might want – such as weather reports, sports results or public transport updates – and this information would appear on your phone without the need to type anything into a search bar.

By 2016 this had evolved into Google Assistant, capable of having a two-way dialogue with the user, and designed with wearable technologies in mind. You can ask it to remember things (such as codes or passwords) and it learns to recognise things you do regularly so it can offer relevant suggestions. It can also look at what is on your phone screen to get ‘context’ for what you are doing. For example, if you are discussing going to a rock-climbing centre with a friend, it can show you prices and directions.

A trend for tech firms


Apple, which was already doing well with its personal assistant Siri, launched a contextually-aware feature called Proactive in 2015. It works in a similar way to the Google version, looking at your routine and offering help at key moments. If you drive home at the same time every day it might bring up traffic information just as you leave, or remember what music you last had on in the car.

All the big tech firms invested heavily in intelligent assistants: Microsoft with Cortana working on its Windows phone platform and in Windows 10, and Amazon with Alexa, which works with its smart speaker Echo. Alexa can be told to order a pizza, get a taxi or remember a ‘to do’ list.

Wrap-around helpfulness

The use of the smart speaker is a sign of where intelligent assistance will go next. It is not just about the battle of the smartphones, but about wrap-around helpfulness with every aspect of your life, at home, at work and in-between.

The internet of things means the infrastructure for this is already in place, with tech giants acquiring smart thermostat companies and other home automation software in preparation. Furthermore, wearable technologies will make it easier to keep your personal assistant with you at all times.

For the next generation it will be natural to leave the organisation of their lives to intelligent assistants… the experts.