Coming Soon: Next-Generation Virtual Assistants

New frontiersInformationWeek recently posted a commentary about the promise of artificial intelligence technologies.  The author Lars Hard zeroed in on three areas that CIOs and Information Technology pros can leverage to address today’s business challenges. The three areas are e-commerce product recommendations, vertical search, and virtual assistants / virtual agents.

As far as virtual assistants go, Lars is of the opinion that Siri, Google Now, and other popular personal digital assistants are currently at the low end of the maturity curve. But he believes that these technologies hold incredible promise. What do they have going for them? Virtual agents have the ability to help companies establish a true bond with their customers. Today that bond might be somewhat limited. But the race is on to create what Lars refers to as the “next-generation virtual assistant.” What will that next generation look like?

In the not too distant future, our virtual agents will understand us. They’ll pay attention to our habits and preferences. They’ll use that information to predict what we need before we even think to ask for it. It’s this predictive reasoning that will give virtual assistants the ability to help us choose the products we want and answer the questions we have. Companies need to stay on top of the emerging technology. They should explore ways to integrate intelligent agents into their customer service platforms.  Companies that understand how to leverage that capability to build deeper customer connections will excel beyond the competition. It’s time to get started.

Big News! IBM Launches the Watson Ecosystem

IBM WatsonI’ve written about IBM Watson and cognitive computing before. Based on the DeepQA (Questioning answering) technology, Watson as an implementation of cognitive computing seems to me like the best technology we have today to realize the dream of truly engaging and intelligent virtual agents.

IBM has just announced the launch of their Watson Ecosystem. You can find more details about the program on the Watson Ecosystem website.

Why is this big news? By offering cloud services that let you plug into and leverage  all of Watson’s technology layers, the possibilities for creating smart apps and even virtual agents are pretty much unbounded. Let’s say you have an idea for an app that can help people find ingredients for any recipe. You can tap into Watson’s natural language processing engine so that your app can understand people when they ask for information on a particular recipe. If the Watson content database happens to include a recipe ingredients database, you can license that content for your app. With some programming skills, you can put together a virtual chef agent that’s on call 24/7 whenever a desperate cook asks: “I’m at the store. What do I need to buy to make vegetarian lasagna and a carrot cake? Or maybe a chocolate mousse?”

If there’s no recipe / ingredient database, there’s an opportunity for savvy teams in the food industry to pull such a knowledge base together and license it to app developers or others through the Watson Ecosystem. (Would be nice if somebody could come up with a “best wine based on your menu” database too). There are even more practical applications in healthcare. First responder / first aid advisory apps come to mind. Personal finance apps, along the lines of “what’s the best way to make it to the end of the month on my paycheck” could be of value, especially in the current economy.

People want access to good information and they want that access to be quick, easy, and reliable. IBM’s Watson and the cognitive computing paradigm are the technology wave of the future. IBM seems to be giving us all a way to get involved early and to reap the rewards of being pioneers in this field. It’s up to us to seize the opportunity and transform our dreams of intelligent virtual agents into reality.

Nuance Wintermute and the Growing Competition in Voice Recognition

WintermuteBack in August, Parmy Olson wrote an interesting article in Forbes on some of the challenges that Nuance faces with its digital assistant Wintermute. I wrote about Wintermute in an earlier post. Olson makes the observation that Nuance rolled out its Wintermute personal assistant technology just as Google and Apple might be catching up and arguably even surpassing Nuance at its own game.

Nuance acquired Dragon Naturally Speaking software technology via a round about means from inventors James and Janet Baker. The Dragon dictation software has been a big component of Nuance’s product line.  Nuance also licensed its speech recognition technology to Apple for use in Siri. But with speech recognition becoming such a core capability for today’s smart phone apps, Google and Apple have been investing heavily in developing their own homegrown solutions.

Olson points out that Google’s voice recognition is based on deep learning technology, whereas Nuance’s approach to speech technology relies on statistical inference that analyzes syllable sounds to identify words. The jury is still out on which technical approach has the most promise, but Google’s implementation of voice recognition has been working. What’s even more threatening to competitors is the fact that Google offers its technology free to Android developers. A case in point are the recent German high school grades behind Voicesphere, which we wrote about a few weeks ago.

Apple recently established a research center in Boston where it’s been pursuing speech technology projects. Many of the team members are former employees of a speech software company that was once acquired by none other than Nuance. Observers speculate that Apple is developing its own voice recognition software that will displace the Nuance components from Siri in upcoming versions.

None of these facts proven with any certainty that Nuance is being overtaken by the competition (and current partners). Wintermute’s mission is to learn as much about your preference and habits as possible, store this knowledge in the cloud, and use that data to infer what you want and what you mean. In other words, Nuance has trained Wintermute to read your mind, which is what a really helpful digital companion needs to be able to do. So far Wintermute still seems to be more of a project than a fully fleshed out commercial offering. It’ll be interested to see how this technology pans out for Nuance as the competition in speech technology and personal digital assistants continues to heat up.

Zeno R25 Conversational Robot Asks for Your Support

RoboKindIn the last post I wrote about the huge potential of virtual humans as evidenced by the Virtual Human Toolkit of the University of Southern California’s Institute for Creative Technologies. The team at RoboKind has decided to go in a different, and perhaps more ambitious direction. They’re in the process of constructing a humanoid robot–the impish looking conversational boy bot Zeno R25. This little robot is designed to look and act much like a real human. The company has put a lot of research and development into outfitting Zeno R25 with life-like facial expressions. In fact, Robokind emphasizes that they’re in the business of ‘social robotics.’ The number one function of their robots is to engage people and interact with them.

RoboKind is currently running a Kickstarter campaign to fund the continued development of the Zeno R25. For a pledge of $2,699 you can have a working, walking, talking Zeno R25 of your very own. Once you have the spunky robot, what’s next? Zeno R25 can see you and hear you. You can speak to it and it will understand you. Based on what the company says, you’ll be able to keep the robot updated with all the newest software modules as soon as they’re released. Modules that are either complete or in the works are foreign language lessons. Zeno R25 will be able to teach you Chinese, for instance, and then converse with you in the language to give you practice.

Another area of the robot’s capability is it’s ability to interact effectively with autistic children. RoboKind has worked with experts in the area of the autism spectrum and has developed therapy modules for affected children.

Eventually the company expects to allow users to upload all sorts of books and other learning materials to the Zeno R25. They plan to make the robot’s software open source so that the community can create more functionality.

Creating a humanoid robot that demonstrates the full gamut of motion, behavioral, sensory, and conversational capabilities is a tall order. It remains to be scene how successful RoboKind is in realizing their goal. In the meantime, if you’d like to support the development of an ambitious conversational robot, check out the ongoing Kickstarter campaign. There are lots of pledge levels to fit every budget.