The AI agents are coming

What might seem like really cool new chatbots are the latest steps towards what several big tech companies hope will be the future of AI.

What happened: OpenAI debuted a voice assistant version of ChatGPT that, besides the casual and kinda flirty way it talks, turned heads for its ability to understand context. The timing let it get ahead of Google, which on Tuesday showed its plan for Project Astra, an assistant that uses a camera to understand the world around the user.

  • In a live demo, OpenAI staff had the assistant read a bedtime story, offer stress relief tips, and identify (and solve) a math equation.
     
  • Google’s Project Astra demo showed it anaylzing code, explaining the different parts of a speaker, and remembering where someone put their glasses down.

How it works: Unlike giving commands one by one to Siri, OpenAI’s assistant is like a conversation — you can correct it, interrupt it, and give it instructions to remember, like automatically translating an ongoing chat. Google’s Project Astra isn’t as good of a conversationalist, but it’s the first version of an AI “agent” that will — eventually — be able to use different apps and web pages to do more complicated tasks.

  • Google’s example was asking an agent to return a pair of shoes: It could find the receipt in your inbox, use the info to fill out a return form, and schedule a pickup.
     
  • OpenAI’s assistant isn’t there yet — it’s providing a ChatGPT-like experience, not searching through Gmail or Spotify playlists — but it’s working on it.

Why it matters: Agents are going to be a big area of AI competition as companies think less about development and more about getting people to actually use it. Technical, jargon-filled announcements  appease investors, but everyone else needs to see useful day-to-day tasks to be convinced.

What’s next: Not to be left behind, Apple is reportedly working on a generative AI update to Siri that would bring it more in line with what we’ve seen from the competition this week. Expect to see it at the company’s developer conference next month.