This was a year full of innovation in the PC space. What makes the year particularly interesting, however, is that many of its advancements are in early stages. Call it the year of the beta: many advancements were either first introduced in 2016, or barely made their way from the concept stage to the market.

PCs started to think for themselves

Artificial intelligence has taken on significant real-world importance in everyday computing, after spending decades as a darling of science fiction, and relegated to researchers running experiments on massively parallel systems. And indeed, “strong AI” –a machine that’s as intelligent as a human – remains a goal that’s likely far in the future.

But there’s a different kind of AI that’s becoming real today, called practical AI. Companies are integrating it into our PCs, and other devices, by way of personal digital assistants, bots, and learning algorithms. We can debate whether these are “real AI,” or merely examples of advanced machine learning, but the fact remains that practical AI is starting to have a real impact on our lives.

Apple’s Siri started things off on iOS in 2011, Google Now followed on Android a year later in 2012, and Microsoft finally completed the triumvirate with Cortana on Windows Phone 8.1 in 2014. It was only in 2016, however, that the personal digital assistant became a PC phenomenon. Apple pushed Siri to macOS Sierra to catch up with Cortana, which has run on Windows 10 from the beginning, and Cortana made her own strides in functionality.

Practical AI is starting to have a real impact on our lives.

While personal digital assistants are still mostly limited to answering questions and processing computing instructions like setting reminders and running apps, they continue to expand with new skills that are often server-side, and so simply show up to users as new functionality. Those skills can come from the companies themselves, or from third parties.

For example, Microsoft has been particularly aggressive in expanding Cortana’s skillset, tying her into Microsoft properties through moves like adding AI-powered functionality to Office 365. It also recently announced a beta of the appointment-setting service, which can coordinate meetings among multiple attendees without any user interaction.

There’s talk of practical AI representing the future of computing, and becoming a new computing platform. That topic is open for debate. But more than anything, what 2016 accomplished for practical AI was to start making us comfortable with its presence in our lives.

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