Man falls for intelligent computer operating system – it doesn’t seem the most plausible of scenarios (even if the operating system is voiced by Scarlett Johansson). But the 2013 science-fiction drama Her is closer to reality than you might think.
Imagine a partner that anticipates your every need – orders takeaway when you’re too tired to cook, plays your favourite mood-boosting song when you’re feeling down and even remembers friends’ birthday. Sounds too good to be true, right?

Luckily, you don’t need to rely on a flesh-and-blood other half to have your back – experts predict your car soon will. With nearly all new vehicles expected to offer voice recognition by 2022 *, the next step could be systems that interpret tone of voice and facial expressions to anticipate drivers’ needs – in other words, empathetic cars.

“We’re well on the road to developing a vehicle that might cheer you up or lend advice when you need it, and keep you alert on a long drive,” said Fatima Vital, a senior director at Nuance Communications, which teamed up with Ford to develop voice recognition on its in-car connectivity system, SYNC 3.

SYNC 3 will connect drivers in the U.S. to Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa. Future systems are expected to evolve into personal assistants that can book and rearrange appointments. Within the next two years, voice control systems could prompt us with all sorts of helpful suggestions, like “Would you like to order flowers for your mum for Mothers’ Day?” “Shall I choose a less congested but slower route home?” and “You’re running low on your favourite chocolate and this store has some in stock. Want to stop by and pick some up?”

And, for those times when you’d rather be alone with your thoughts, your car could learn to recognise when silence is best. (If only all real-life partners were that intuitive.)

“Voice commands like ‘I’m hungry’ to find a restaurant and ‘I need coffee’ have already brought SYNC 3 into personal assistant territory,” said Mareike Sauer, voice control engineer, Connectivity Application Team, Ford of Europe. “Eventually, drivers will not only be able to use their native tongue, spoken in their own accent, but also use their own wording, for more natural speech.”

So is there a danger of life imitating art? Could we fall in love with our AI companions as in the movie Her? “In-car systems will be capable of taking the context of almost any situation into account, and will be able to train themselves without human intervention. Language-wise, they won’t need to stick to a narrow script, and could even start to coin words and phrases of their own,” said Dominic Watt, senior lecturer, Department of Language and Linguistic Science, University of York. “As the technology gets ever smarter we will become accustomed to talking to the systems much as we talk to other people, and the systems will learn to adapt to us.”

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