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Say hello to the personal robot assistant, coming soon to your workplace

One-third of UK professionals 'would welcome robots as their personal assistants'.

By Joe Curtis

Robots could save you an hour a day in the office by taking on admin and time-consuming tasks, it is claimed, after a survey found one-third of UK workers would welcome personal robotic assistants.

The research found that a third of 2,000 British employees would favour a digital personal assistant on their smartphone, and 58% predicted such a service could take on at least a tenth of their workload.

The survey from mobile workforce management firm ClickSoftware follows hot on the heels of Microsoft’s release of Cortana, its own voice assistant on Windows Phone, which can read your email and organise your diary.

"Consumers are already using simple versions of intelligent personal assistants," said Steve Mason, VP of mobility.

"Very soon, we will be seeing more advanced professional applications offering advice on different aspects of our working lives."

His comments come after IBM, the creator of supercomputer Watson, bought virtual assistant startup Cognea on Monday.

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The tech giant is trying to commercialise its invention through the newly-created Watson Group (funded to the tune of $1bn), and Mike Rhodin, who heads up the group, said the acquisition would give Watson personalities "from suit-and-tie formal to kid-next-door friendly".

He sees potential in the idea that surpasses the capabilities of your average smartphone assistant, whether Cortana, Apple’s Siri or Google Now.

"This focus on creating depth of personality, when combined with an understanding of the users’ personalities will create a new level of interaction that is far beyond today’s ‘talking’ smartphones," he wrote in a blog post.

But how far could these capabilities go? ClickSoftware’s Mason admits there is "a hesitancy towards the concept of smart assistants or AI", and states "these applications are simply a way of helping staff rather than replacing them".

However, Watson beat two champions of US general knowledge TV quiz show Jeopardy in 2011, demonstrating how quickly it can process data and make it useful.

Peter Cochrane, the former CTO of BT who now runs a consultancy on the business technologies of the near future, believes people still have jobs in some cases only because they are cheaper than a robot workforce.

"The problem is we are struggling with anywhere from three to seven topics in front of us at any one time," he told an audience at this week’s Ignite summit in London.

"Think about a system that has around 1,000 inputs into making a decision. You have to take them all in and the age-old technique we used to have was picking the three or four biggest. [In a data-drive world] that no longer works.

"The only way we can cope in this kind of world is by using machines. You’ll see this changing the medical profession. 50% of what newly graduated doctors have learned is now wrong."

IBM’s Rhodin added: "Ultimately, we plan to offer technologies that make it possible for you to carry on a highly intellectual debate with a computer."

And with a $100m investment in venture capital to help startups start to build apps and services on top of the Watson platform, such a future may not be so far away.

Rhodin ends his blogpost saying: "Welcome to the era of cognitive computing. The future is here today."

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