The Future of Companionable Agents

The Future of Companionable Agents

Roberta Catizone (University of Sheffield, U.K.) and Yorick Wilks (University of Sheffield, U.K.)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-60960-617-6.ch017
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Abstract

COMPANIONS is a concept that aims to change the way we think about the relationships of people to computers and the Internet by developing a virtual ’Companion’ to stand between individuals and the torrent of data on the Internet, including their own life information, which will soon be too large for people to handle easily without some new form of assistance. The Companion is intended as an agent or ’presence’ that stays with a user for periods of time, longer than in conventional task-based dialogue systems, developing a relationship and ’knowing’ and assisting its owner’s experiences, preferences, plans, and wishes. The Companions concept aims to model a fuller range of conversation than has been done hitherto, both task and non-task based, and discusses what properties people will want in a long term computer Companion that is also an Internet agent in a new form.
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1 Introduction

As already described in Chapter 13, the EU project Companions has already produced two prototypes that are being tested. In this chapter, the future of this idea is envisioned. Computer Companions will be software agents that get to know us, interface us to the Internet, and help manage the huge amount of information in our digital lives: the “digital me”. They will also entertain, listen and carry out little jobs from reminding us of the plot of our favourite soap opera to making a restaurant booking. All this is now perfectly feasible in the current state of speech and language technology, taken together with general artificial intelligence research on reasoning, knowledge and emotion.

Companions are not at all about fooling us that they are human because they will not pretend to be human at all. Imagine the following scenario: an old person sits on a sofa, and beside them is a large furry handbag, which we shall call a Senior Companion; it is easy to carry about, but much of the day it just sits there and chats. Given the experience of Tamagochi, and the easily ascertained fact that old people with pets survive far better than those without, we will expect this to be an essential lifespan and health-improving objective to own. There is considerable evidence that people accept and welcome such companions, rather as they do pets in the home.

Nor is it hard to see why this Companion that chats in an interesting way would become an essential possession for the growing elderly population of the EU and the US, the most rapidly growing segment of the population, but one relatively well provided with funds. Other Companions are just as plausible as this one, such as a Junior Companion for children, which would most likely take the form of a backpack, a small and hard to remove backpack that always knew where the child was.

Common sense tells us that no matter what we read in the way of official encouragement, a large proportion of today's old people are effectively excluded from information technology, the web, the Internet and some mobile phones because “they cannot learn how to cope with the buttons”. This can be because of their generation or because of losses of skill with age: there are talking books in abundance now but many, otherwise intelligent, old people cannot manipulate a tape recorder or a mobile phone, which has too many small controls for them with unwanted functionalities.

In all these situations, one can see how a Companion that could talk and understand and also gain access to the web, to email and a mobile phone could become an essential cognitive prosthesis for an old person, one that any responsible society would have to support. It is reliably reported that many old people spend much of their day sorting and looking over photographs of themselves and their families, along with places they have lived and visited.

This will obviously increase as time goes on and everyone begins to have access to digitized photos and videos throughout their lives. One can see this as an attempt to establish the narrative of one's life: what drives the most literate segment of the population to write autobiographies (for the children) even when, objectively speaking, they may have lived lives with little to report. If a huge volume of personal material is to be sorted, as it will be later for the Facebook generation of children, some form of automated assistance will be needed, we believe. Managing the digital information in the life of a future seventy-year old will be a huge task that will probably not be possible without a Companion’s help.

The chapter assumes that artificial Companions are coming, and the interesting issues concern what they will be like. We shall take the distinguishing features of a Companion agent to be:

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