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By Roger Highfield on

Take part in our digital assistant survey

To celebrate Manchester Science Festival 2022, Roger Highfield, Science Director, has been working with Professor Richard Wiseman at the University of Hertfordshire and Professor Caroline Watt at the University of Edinburgh to conduct a survey to find out what you think of virtual assistants, from Cortana to Siri.

Please note: The survey discussed below is now closed.

Artificial intelligence is becoming part of our everyday lives in the form of digital or virtual assistants such as Siri, Alexa, Bixby, Cortana and Google Assistant.

These devices can tell jokes, do quizzes, play music, tell us if it is raining in Manchester, find the fastest route to a pub and much more. But how do we perceive this increasingly impressive form of AI?

Are they soulless and trapped in a smart speaker? Or sleek, warm and professional? Whether you love or hate them, we want to hear from you!

A survey of public attitudes has been launched to mark the return of Manchester Science Festival, which runs from Friday 21 – Sunday 30 October 2022. It only takes a few minutes to complete and the survey can be accessed here.

The results will shed light on why we do, or do not, like digital assistants, how we perceive them, and the reasons that we come to trust them.

The experiment chimes with the main theme of Manchester Science Festival 2022: what makes us human and what does the future hold for humanity?

Whatever lies in store for us, AI is going to play an increasingly dominant role and this survey will give a glimpse of how humans and machines are going to get along.

A Psion Series 3 personal organiser, 1991. A digital assistant, before the days of Siri, Alexa, Bixby, Cortana, Google Assistant et al…
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Digital voice assistants are much more than a convenient tool—they are very real applications of artificial intelligence that are increasingly integral to the daily life of some people, although others (who we also want to hear from) dislike the idea of using them.

The assistants use supervised machine learning, where humans review a small sample of requests to help the digital assistant understand the correct interpretation of a request and provide the right response.

Typically, they are activated by a ‘wake word’ or words—’Hey Siri’, ‘OK Google’ or ‘Hey Google’, ‘Alexa’, and ‘Hey Microsoft’—and use built-in technology that matches what you have said to the acoustic patterns of the wake word/s.

Digital assistants take advantage of natural language processing, a branch of artificial intelligence that enables computers to understand and interpret human language.

User requests are used to train the assistants’ speech recognition and natural language understanding systems using a form of AI called machine learning.

Machine-learning algorithms find patterns in massive amounts of data and the best-known kind are neural networks, vaguely inspired by the inner workings of the human brain.

Digital assistants use AI-powered speech synthesis to communicate with you and use AI search algorithms to respond to your queries.

This survey is part of a wider conversation about AI and the extent to which we can trust computers. At the festival itself, a session will explore what more we want from digital assistants.

The survey is the latest in a long series of mass engagement projects and citizen science. For example, a 1995 ‘truth test’ experiment conducted by Richard Wiseman with the BBC and Roger Highfield at the Daily Telegraph attracted a million call attempts to phone lines set up for the experiment.

In the Science Museum Group’s case, examples include the Hooked On Music and Turing’s Sunflowers projects, as part of Manchester Science Festival, an AI test of intelligence along with a recent study of solar storms.

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