Apple’s Siri and the Unfulfilled Potential of Task Completion

SiriIn a recent Techcrunch article, Dan Kaplan laments the unfulfilled potential of Apple’s personal assistant Siri. Kaplan makes the point that the vision of the original Siri creators was for the mobile personal assistant to become  a “task-completion engine.” Siri was about disrupting traditional search and replacing it with an artificially intelligent assistant that could understand and then actually execute tasks for us. Instead of just looking up answers on the Internet and feeding them back to us, Siri’s destiny was supposed to be that of an indispensable concierge in a box.

Earlier pre-Apple versions of the assistant, Kaplan points out, could order you a cab, make restaurant reservations, or even find out what bands were playing around town. Siri’s creators envisioned even more task-completion functions, such as the ability to rebook an airline ticket for you if your flight got canceled or redirecting a package delivery to your office if it arrived at your house while you were out.

Kaplan complains that Siri has stagnated. The mobile assistant remains mired in the technology of search. Google Now has surpassed Siri in terms of its predictive powers. Google Now, for example, shows you cards with information based on tidbits it gleams from your Gmail accounts and other sources. That means that Google Now can show you the status of an airline flight you’re on without you asking, or update you on the score of a recent game played by a sports team you follow.

Kaplan’s point about the potential power of mobile task-completion is a good one. Most virtual agent technology today is focused on understanding language and intent and providing a good response. Even super sophisticated cognitive computing systems, like IBM Watson (aka DeepQA) are designed to provide answers to questions. Task-oriented virtual agents might be just around the corner, and it will be interesting to observe their impact on the marketplace. What will it mean when we have virtual agents that are not only able to converse with customers, but that can actually process customer transactions? We’re likely to find out one of these days.

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