My name is Companion – Digital Companion
Systems that become real workmates are known as digital companions. They are intelligent, and they support their colleagues and relieve them of arduous tasks, without manipulating or dominating them. Research findings from the fields of artificial intelligence, psychology, and neurobiology are being used in the development of these systems.
by Aenne Barnard
The working environments of the future will feel very different from those of today, and they’ll be very attractive for people. Human workers will have to do less routine work because machines will be able to do it better. Humans, on the other hand, will do more strategic and creative knowledge work that machines can’t do well. Companies’ business success will probably no longer depend only on establishing systematic and efficient procedures. Instead, it will depend more on whether they succeed in integrating human beings’ special capabilities into these procedures.
Digital companions are the ideal example of a computer-supported system that adapts itself to its human users and forms an interface between efficiency, strictly defined processes, masses of data, and creative people. A digital companion is software that is perceived as a helpful assistant.
More than a Chatbot
Is a digital companion merely a humanoid user interface? “Hey Siri, are you a digital companion?” “Hmm, I don’t know,” the computer voice replies, not very helpfully. “Siri doesn’t become a digital companion just because it can speak,” says Axel Platz, a specialist in human-machine communication at Siemens’ central research unit, Corporate Technology (CT). “After just a few questions, it becomes obvious that it is only a program that follows a simple algorithm. The important thing is not the act of speaking, but rather what’s being said. A digital companion has to have the (artificial) intelligence (AI) to understand the tasks that are being talked about. Only then can it support the user by making suggestions and proposing concrete solutions.”
"We are shaping the future's working environment. As a result of the digital revolution, large data volumes flow together in many locations."
Focusing on People
Not every AI system is a digital companion – a category that’s reserved for systems that can adapt to the human psyche. “All human beings have the same elementary, universal basic needs for autonomy, responsibility, and solidarity,” explains Platz. “A digital companion has to take this into account. For example, a system that proposes concrete solutions and supports the user with relevant information is perceived as a helpful assistant. By contrast, if too many decisions are made automatically, the human user loses the possibility of making autonomous decisions and will reject the companion as a domineering know-it-all.”
Does this sound like gimmickry? “Not at all,” says Platz. “We are shaping the working environment of the future. As a result of the digital revolution, large volumes of data flow together in many locations, such as factories, control centers, and the like. Those who are responsible for such facilities depend on computers that evaluate the data. If we can offer them high-quality assistance in the form of digital companions, we will not only make their work more pleasant, we’ll also make the plants more secure.”
Control Center Companion
An example of a digital companion is offered by “Early Warning,” a prototype concept developed last year at Siemens. Early Warning is designed to help operators in the control centers of power distribution grids to detect disruptions as early as possible — ideally even before they occur. Disruption detection is becoming more and more important for power generators and distributors, because it tomorrow’s power grids, with their many different and widely distributed solar and wind-dependent power generators, are particularly vulnerable. Early Warning uses artificial intelligence to compare the current situation with previous situations that led to disruptions. The system takes into consideration not only the technical parameters of the power grid itself but also contextual factors such as weather conditions. Together with the user, who can assess the decisive facts using a graphic interface, the system, which functions as a companion, helps to evaluate the relevance of similarities and their underlying factors and recommend countermeasures.
"However, in the next few years digital companions will almost certainly gain importance throughout industry.”
“With systems like Early Warning we have barely scratched the surface of what can be achieved in the area of the digital companion,” says Platz. “For example, the system does not yet take the user’s emotions into account. “But the basic concepts are recognizable. Decision-making authority remains with the user, while the companion-like system prepares the available data masses so that the resulting information helps the user make better decisions. This development is still in its infancy. However, in the next few years digital companions will almost certainly gain importance throughout industry.”
How Much Help is Enough?
As is the case with many AI applications, in the development of digital companions not everything that is possible is also reasonable. For example, how should a digital companion deal with users’ emotions? It would certainly make sense for an intelligent driver cockpit to prevent a driver from getting angry. But should a writing program do the same thing when it is being used to write an irate letter of complaint? “From a technical perspective, a great deal is certainly possible,” Platz says. “However, these capabilities only make sense as long as we support users’ intentions rather than manipulating them. We also have to protect the rights of the people whose emotions are being analyzed. We’re only at the beginning of our development of digital companions. As artificial intelligence is refined in the years ahead, digital companions will gain importance throughout industry.”
Just one more question, to wrap up: “Hey Siri, do you like digital companions?” “This is about you, not me,” it responds – and its right – isn’t it?
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