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How Scientists Are Bringing Our AI Assistants to Life

Technology

How Scientists Are Bringing Our AI Assistants to Life

Get to know why Siri, Alexa and their digital rivals are who they are.

“Who are you?” I ask.

“Cortana,” replies the cheerful female voice coming out of my phone. “I’m your personal assistant.”

“Tell me about yourself,” I say to the Microsoft AI.

“Well, in my spare time I enjoy studying the marvels of life. And Zumba.”

“Where do you come from?”

“I was made by minds across the planet.”

That’s a dodge, but I let it pass. “How old are you?”

“Well, my birthday is April 2, 2014, so I’m really a spring chicken. Except I’m not a chicken.”

Almost unwillingly, I smile. So this is technology today: An object comes to life. It speaks, sharing its origin story, artistic preferences and corny jokes. It asserts its selfhood by using the first-person pronoun “I.” When Cortana lets us know that she is a discrete being with her own unique personality, it’s hard to tell whether we have stepped into the future or the animist past. Or whether personified machines are entirely a good thing. Selfhood, according to one school of thought in AI research, should be the exclusive province of actual living beings.