Will AI-Powered ‘Microservices’ Bring Back Services of Old?

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When I watch movies of the Victorian era, scenes of upper-class life contain many examples of services that are no longer available. When a phone rings, the master and mistress of the house ignore it entirely—they leave it to a butler or maid to pick up the phone and determine if the call requires their attention. Another servant answers when there’s a knock at the door, disposes of patently unsuitable callers, and allows the master or mistress to determine if the others should be allowed in—a wonderful way to politely avoid an inconvenient or unwanted caller. 

Today, of course, almost everyone springs to their phones at the first beep, boop, or vibration; it’s only a few hardy souls, such as myself, who can ignore their phones. And I have to answer my own door.

Artificial intelligence (AI) may change all this. Speech technology—including recognition, verification, identification, emotion detection, and lie detection (perhaps especially the latter)—could prove a handy tool for answering the phone; add in image recognition and now the front door can be handled as well. And while we won’t see a general-purpose butler for years, if not decades, we already have “microservices” that use AI. Let me give a couple of examples.

Let’s start with a profitable, useful, popular AI robot, one that’s in millions of homes around the world and in use since 2002. The microservice is cleaning, and the robot is the Roomba. 

Roombas have a few simple rules; they act autonomously in relatively unstructured environments; they even recharge themselves. They’re simple devices not connected to the Internet, not at all complex by today’s AI standards, but still useful, popular, and profitable.

During the Victorian era, any substantial person of business would have an assistant or three and a secretary. Today most mid-level employees handle tasks that were once the province of clerks or specialists, which explains why engineers, salespeople, and managers agonize over the minutiae of PowerPoint presentations. Apparently, the cost of hiring clerks is just too high while the cost of not hiring clerks remains invisible.

One AI microservice, x.ai, solves a sticky clerical task. At SpeechTEK 2018, Tobias Goebel highlighted this microservice, which negotiates meeting times via email. When someone requests an appointment, you add one of x.ai’s robots into the email chain: “Please work with Amy, whom I’ve cc’d, to set up a meeting.” Based on your calendar and the customer’s input, “Amy” will schedule your meeting and inform you of the appointment. (Full disclosure: I’d heard of x.ai well before Goebel’s talk from my son-in-law, who works there.)

Two services not yet available are phone call and visitor screening. I gave up on my landline this spring; nearly every incoming call was spam. I migrated my number to the cloud, wrote a simple IVR that requires caller input, and stopped all the incoming spam dead in its tracks. But in my opinion this is not AI, and I wonder how a more flexible service might work. I would prefer, as I’ll explain below, that the service use rules rather than Big Data to screen callers.

I’d love a microservice to answer my door for me, especially when I’m busy. Salesmen can be dismissed, along with religious evangelists. Persons who solicit donations can be told to leave their pleas in the mailbox. Anyone who knocks, immediately rings the bell, and immediately knocks again, all without waiting for a response, can receive a mildly intense electric shock. Anyone who can persuade the microservice that their business is suitably important can be brought discreetly to my attention to be admitted or politely rejected. I’m afraid this service is too advanced for today’s technology. Or is it? After all, most salesmen wear corporate clothing, and image recognition continues to improve. 

Technology goes through cycles of scale. Computer services once depended on giant mainframes, then became available on local desktops, and now, due to complexity, have migrated to the cloud, where they will stay for some time. Until I can completely control my own artificial intelligences, I must exercise great care while I rely on cloud-based systems. Your credit card company, internet provider, telecommunication vendor, and social media companies all cheerfully collect your data and gossip about it with all sorts of undesirables. Any microservice I allow into my home must pass the strictest possible scrutiny and adhere to the highest standards of privacy. In true Victorian fashion, my household will only retain virtual servants that are both loyal and discreet.

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