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August 3, 2021

HAL, Samantha and the anthropomorphic sound of the future

Soon, the voices won’t be just in our heads — they’ll surround us in every piece of tech we use.

This essay is an excerpt from Timeline of Next, our recent Cognizant Center for the Future of Work report, which explores the remarkable possibilities for the decade ahead. By pulling a thread on what we know now about our “new normal” and considering what may come later as a result, various thought leaders from within Cognizant and beyond help us peek into the future of families, work, economic structures, life itself and more.

There’s a scene in the 2013 sci-fi romantic comedy Her that captures where artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistants (VA) are heading. Set just over the horizon in futuristic Los Angeles, the film chronicles the lonely life of techno-nerd Theodore Twombly, who makes a living writing personal letters for people unable to effectively express themselves. Twombly acquires a new AI operating system designed to act as his VA.

Depressed and reeling from the breakup of his marriage, Twombly immediately falls head over heels for his VA, Samantha. “I can’t believe I am having a conversation with my computer,” he reveals to Samantha during their initial rendezvous. To which she responds: “You’re not, you’re talking to me.”

In a click or two, Apple and Amazon and Google (and every other tech vendor worth its salt) will have Samantha-like capabilities embedded as their UX, and digits will be well on their way to becoming superfluous in a digital age.

Clearly, it will take enormous algorithmic smarts to imbue VAs with anthropomorphic fidelity. But that’s the arms race of 2020-2025.

What the future sounds like

A world of Samanthas and Siris and Alexas (and every other old-fashioned Victorian name you care to resurrect from the pages of Dickens and Hardy — “Hey, Charity Picksniff — order my usual pizza, will you?”) may seem unsettling at first, but by mid-decade, they will be as normal as ATMs, contactless payments and in-car head-up displays.

In another click or two, Samantha (or Charity) will change on-the-fly depending on our mood, circumstance and, of course, need. Women could opt for male voices, if desired. Men could keep their female VAs with the lilting intonation that rises at the close of each statement that Siri made famous. Or you’ll talk to a George (Clooney) in the morning and a Nicole (Kidman) in the evening — celebrities will, of course, monetize their velvet tones with digital rights management deals.

And then, in a further click or three, VAs will truly read our minds — not only finishing our sentences but also proactively anticipating our every need, want and desire (hopefully, within reason), even overruling us, where necessary — or at least where human intelligence falls short of the mark.

As HAL, the seemingly omniscient supercomputer from the sci-fi thriller 2001: A Space Odyssey warned us when his cognition differed from his human companion: “I’m sorry, Dave. I’m afraid I can’t do that.” With more precise algorithmic thinking, VAs that can countermand are not too far away. With a smile or a scowl, or a countenance that augments their purpose and conveys understanding that transcends the spoken word, e.g., in an entirely anthropomorphic way, their voices will fill our minds, and our future.

Cognizant Insights Team

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