You may not have unwrapped a robot on Christmas, but your new year will be filled with artificial intelligence.
Facebook, Google, Microsoft and other technology companies, large and small, are making rapid advancements with virtual personal assistants that can solve problems and even complete tasks.
"We're going to start to see more personal assistants (in the new year), and the ones that are already online will get more useful," said Brian Blau, an analyst at Gartner.
The assistants, sometimes referred to as "chatbots," represent noteworthy advancements to computer programs that simulate conversations. Chatbots are not new — think Apple's Siri or Microsoft's Cortana.
But in 2016, you'll encounter different, smarter varieties of chatbots, some appearing in your favorite social media applications.
"Chatbots are designed to answer questions, to perform searches, to interact with you in a very simple form, such as jokes or weather," said Brian Solis, principal analyst with Altimeter Group. "Ultimately, they should be able to anticipate your needs and help you shop."
These robot helpers are also expected to assume more human-like qualities in 2016, exchanging messages in a conversational style rather than a computer's mechanical responses.
The human side of chatbots will be most apparent in mobile messaging applications such as Facebook Messenger, where the social network has already begun perfecting its own virtual assistant called "M." M, first released to a small number of Messenger users in August, can strike up a conversation or crack a joke — but also book travel, make purchases or wait on hold with the cable company when you're not in the mood.
Powered by both artificial intelligence and actual humans (who help train the digital robots), M is the digital equivalent of a secretary or hotel concierge. The persona was originally code-named "Moneypenny" after the fictional character in James Bond films.
Google is also working to add question-and-answer computer programs inside a messaging app, the Wall Street Journal reported last month. Google is likely motivated by a desire to gain ground in the mobile messaging realm, where rivals such as Facebook are far more dominant. The company also has a financial interest to remain at the forefront of Internet search, a behavior that, on smartphones, has migrated away from the traditional search engine.
Mobile messaging apps, meanwhile, are on the fast track to a billion users, growing so fast that they're overshadowing social networking as a favorite smartphone activity with youngsters.
"If you look at what the youngest tech generation is doing ... it's more about Instagram,
Forty-nine percent of smartphone owners ages 18 to 29 use messaging apps such as
Facebook Messenger is used by more than 700 million people each month. WhatsApp, also owned by Facebook, has more than 900 million monthly users.
As audiences grow, American companies are taking inspiration from hit Asian messaging services, where human-like chatbots such as Microsoft's Xiaoice (meaning "little Bing") have already proved popular. The American variety of artificial intelligence and automated assistance currently centers around shopping — for good reason. That's where the money is.
Take the iPhone apps Mona and Mezi, for instance, which are marketed as personal shopping assistants.
Powered entirely by artificial intelligence and built by former Amazon employees, Mona is meant to provide a concierge-like experience for consumers looking for top-notch recommendations on what to buy. The 1-year-old start-up is programmed to appeal to 18-to-35-year-old women who like to shop online, enjoy finding discounts on high-end fashion and appreciate getting feedback from friends. She sifts through email receipts and interactions with the app to make educated bets on what you want to purchase.
"Mona will show you five items, and you will be able to say, 'Mona, I like the first one but can you show me that in a different color?'," said Orkun Atik, co-founder and chief executive of the Seattle-based start-up. "And we want to give her a personality because we believe that we can advance her to a level where you're talking to a person."
Mona may sound like a niche app, but a robot that scours the Web to help you find, and buy, exactly what you want could serve as a replacement for Google. Atik believes in five years people will interact with smart, artificial-intelligence-based personal assistants in lieu of search engines.
The recently launched app Mezi is also a type of search-engine replacement. The app acts as an electronic travel agent and product expert. Like Facebook, Mezi relies, in part, on humans to converse with shoppers. The company employs people it considers subject-matter experts so customers get the best recommendations possible. Artificial intelligence is used behind the scenes to route conversations, identify message intent and assist the assistants.
Currently, 25% of Mezi's messages are machine-made, CEO Swapnil Shinde said, but the San Francisco start-up believes it can perfect the system to handle 80% of messages with chatbots. It's a necessary progression as machine labor is far more economical than the human equivalent.
The constraints of messaging apps make them ideal breeding grounds for bots still in their intellectual infancy. Plus, the medium is suited for concierge-like treatment, which more of us, particularly younger folks, are beginning to expect from our apps.
"Philosophically, it is how we, as consumers, have been conditioned," Solis said. "You want great service. You crave great experiences — and you feel like you're entitled to them, regardless of your status."
So if you expect the world to revolve around you, chatbots could be your new best friend.
Van Grove writes for the San Diego Union-Tribune.