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The AI assistant revolution is more than 50 years in the making

The AI assistant revolution is more than 50 years in the making


We’ve been trying to talk to our computers for as long as we’ve had computers. Slowly but surely, we might be getting close to making it happen.

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Illustration of the Vergecast logo with an AI face
Illustration by Samar Haddad / The Verge

Today, we have ChatGPT, Bard, Alexa, Siri, and a thousand others. Nearly a half-century ago, there was GUS. GUS, which stood for the Genial Understander System, came out of a project at Xerox PARC in the 1970s that hoped to find ways to teach computers to understand human language.

Enterprising engineers, researchers, linguists, and even users have been longing for a way to talk to their computers pretty much since computers first became a thing. You shouldn’t have to communicate with your device by writing code, they figured, or by clicking in the right boxes in the right order. You should simply be able to talk to your computer like you’d talk to a person. Virtual assistants are a staple of science fiction, a decades-long startup pitch, and to many people, just an obviously good idea.

But what does a good virtual assistant do? How does it work? And now, in 2023, with a new generation of artificial intelligence tech available to us, can we at last make the AI assistants we’ve been dreaming about for so long? That’s what we asked in this episode of The Vergecast, the third in our three-episode series about AI.

To help us navigate the state and future of AI assistants, we enlisted Richard Socher, the CEO of started out calling itself a “search engine,” but it doesn’t do that anymore. Now, it’s an AI assistant that can help you find information online but also write emails, create images, calculate your exact mortgage payment, and much more.

Socher has been working on AI for a long time and on natural language understanding for even longer. And he’s convinced that even if we’re not yet ready for truly human-level AI, we’re finally at the point where a virtual assistant can be a real help in your life. But even he is still figuring out exactly what a chatbot can be good for and what other forms an assistant might need to take.

The Vergecast /

A podcast about technology and emotions