Siri Co-Founder Dag Kittlaus Talks About Viv Technology

Dag Kittlaus, CEO and co-founder of Viv Labs, gave an interview recently in which he shared thoughts on the future of intelligent personal assistants. He also talked about the next generation intelligent assistant currently under development at Viv Labs. You can read my guest blog post on Opus Research to get a summary of the interview.

Neural NetworksI found Kittlaus’s reference to his company’s patent on “A Cognitive Architecture and Marketplace for Dynamically Evolving Systems” particularly interesting. The gist of the patented idea seems to be that an intelligent assistant must have the ability to satisfy needs that it can’t predict in advance.  In order to do this, the underlying technology has to be able to generate programs on the fly.

These programs would coordinate the execution of tasks to retrieve information, perform a transaction, or do whatever the user has asked the intelligent assistant to do. In many cases, fulfilling the user’s intent will entail finding and executing services provided by third-parties. But the assistant will have the ability to do this in a seamless way.

The patent documentation contains many more interesting details and is worth a look for those interested in intelligent personal assistant technologies.

 

Wrap up of Opus Research’s Intelligent Assistants Conference

Earlier this week, Opus Research hosted the first ever Intelligent Assistants Conference. Like all first-time events, you have to take a leap of faith that everything will go off smoothly. In fact, the 1-day conference was a huge success, bringing together customers of enterprise intelligent assistants, technology providers, and companies eager to learn more about the business value of intelligent assistants. I was extremely impressed with the company case studies presented by representatives from Hyatt Hotels, Coca-Cola, Domino’s, Schlage, and Windstream Communications. I wrote a guest post for the Opus Research blog that summarizes how each company is employing intelligent assistants  / virtual agent technology to both drive down costs and improve customer experience.

Intelligent Assistants ConferenceThe day was also filled with lively panel discussions on topics ranging from the history of artificially intelligent chatter bots to the future of mobile personal assistants in the image of Spike Jonze’s Her. Dan Miller of Opus was able to attract a stellar group of panelists to the event and the conversations were fabulously entertaining for people interested in this space. The room at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco stayed packed all day and the audience was never stumped for questions.

I came away from the event firmly convinced that enterprise intelligent assistants aren’t just for early adopters anymore. There are powerful use cases where this technology can be applied today and companies that take the leap stand to gain a competitive advantage over their competition. In terms of how personal intelligent assistants will impact the consumer market, so much is happening so quickly that it’s hard to guess where the market will be in a year or two. The growing adoption of wearables, where the form factor aligns better with speech-based communication than with text / typing, may push more usage of intelligent assistants. Or a completely new user interface might emerge.

Regardless of how things evolve, it seems certain that people will always want to engage in conversation. Intelligent assistants can satisfy that desire, while at the same time helping people solve problems and more easily navigate their way through life. I look forward to Opus Research’s 2nd Annual Intelligent Assistants Conference next year. With the pace at which this technology is evolving, there’s bound to be a lot to talk about.

 

What Will Google Do with Emu’s Messaging App with Built-In Assistant?

A few months ago, I wrote about X.ai and the intelligent assistant product that they call Amy. Amy is different from most personal intelligent assistants in that you don’t talk to her directly. Instead, Amy ‘listens in’ to your email conversations and takes instructions based on the content of what you write. You can instruct her specifically to set up a meeting for you, but she’s intelligent enough to pick up the nuances of what you need by analyzing your emails.

This type of implicit understanding seems to be the latest trend in intelligent assistant technologies. Techcrunch reported last week that Google acquired Emu, an instant messaging app that appears to have the same sort of context-aware, behind-the-scenes smart assistant built into it. It was just back in April of this year, according to another Techcrunch report, that Emu exited Beta with its mobile messaging app. Obviously, Google must see a lot of promise in the technology if they were anxious to snap it up so quickly.

Google acquires EmuEmu seems to have a broader range of talents than X.ai’s Amy at this point. According to the Techcrunch article, Emu can proactively offer up contextual information based on a number of different topics that you might happen to be texting with friends about. If you’re texting about a dinner date, for example, Emu can show you your calendar, as well as the location and Yelp ratings of relevant restaurants. It can offer the same type of on the spot info about nearby movies if the conversation turns in that direction. The app also lets you tap a button to carry out an action related to the information Emu has retrieved. For example, you can reserve a table at a restaurant or purchase movie tickets.

All of the attributes make Emu sound more like a real personal assistant then either Siri or Google Now.  And it seems the importance of perfecting voice recognition is taking a back seat to an assistant’s ability to infer context and relevant data based on “ambient” information. I use the term ambient to refer to information that surrounds us in our emails, texts, and search behavior. Google Now seems to be more satisfying than Siri as an assistant, precisely because you don’t have to talk to it or ask it anything. It picks up pieces of relevant information about your life by accessing the same data sources that you use routinely.

It will be interesting to see what Google does with the Emu acquisition. It’s also a fun thought experiment to consider how this type of ambient assistance could be applied to enterprise virtual assistants. Recommendation engines, like those suggesting books and movies you might like, are an example of this technology. Customer service intelligent agents that are smart enough to assist you based on a knowledge of your past purchases and preferences might be an appealing concept–as long as they can steer clear of the creepy factor.

X.ai Builds a New Kind of Intelligent Meeting Assistant

X.ai is building a new personal meeting assistant, according to Techcrunch. The company has named the personal assistant Amy. The assistant’s full name is Amy Ingram,  so it’s not named after me, thank goodness! (Maybe the name isn’t so great for all the real life Amy Ingram’s out there. Now they’ll join the club of us folks who share the same name as a non-human imaginative figure).  Why does Amy need a real person’s name? Because X.ai is using a clever technology that differs from other personal meeting assistants

Screen shot 2014-05-29 at 6.49.37 PMYou don’t have to talk to Amy to ask her to set up a meeting. No voice commands needed. Instead, you simply copy her on the emails you send out about the meeting. The Amy smart technology will parse the email content and determine when and where to schedule the meeting and who to invite. Actually, I think you can also talk to Amy to have her (it) schedule your meeting if you prefer that option. But having her infer your intent from emails is more seamless.

The X.ai personal assistant reminds me a bit of AVA, a technology offered by Bluesky that is targeted at auto dealers. The products fit completely different use cases, but they both employ AI techniques that interact with email and mimic human actions. AVA applies AI algorithms to read and write email correspondence that drives leads into the dealership and follows up to help close the sale. AVA supplements the dealership’s car salesmen and saleswomen who might be too busy (or too distracted) to follow up on every lead. In the demos provided of the AVA technology, the person receiving the email correspondence has no idea that they’re interacting with a non-human email bot / agent.

As language processing and machine learning algorithms improve, software agents will increasingly be able to mimic human conversational partners in both written and spoken exchanges. Having a virtual personal assistant who isn’t human, but who you can have organize your life just by including it on emails, seems like a useful thing indeed. Google Now already possesses a hint of these capabilities. It produces useful cards by recognizing the content of your Gmail messages. Just this weekend, Google Now presented me a card with all the information I needed for a hotel reservation I’d made. I was about to rifle through all my emails to try to find the confirmation number, but there is was, right on the card.

There’s an interesting blog post on the X.ai website by Dennis R. Mortensen, the company’s CEO and Founder, about how intelligent agents will soon be mining our email to find tasks to execute on our behalf.

If you want to be one of the first to try out the Amy automated meeting assistant, you can head to the X.ai website and add your email to their waiting list.

 

Jarvis Meets Ginger

Jarvis.jpgNews was released last week that Intel purchased some of the assets of Ginger Software for between $20 and $30 million. The purchase included Ginger’s personal assistant technology.

Seeking Alpha, which reported on the Ginger acquisition from an investor’s point of view, saw the purchase as a positive move. I wrote in an earlier post about Intel’s Jarvis technology, which is built on a specialized mini computer. This powerful chip, which runs Linux and other software tools, supports a full fledged virtual assistant without relying on the cloud. It makes it feasible for Intel to load the Ginger personal assistant directly onto a wearable device, such as the Jarvis smart headset.

Last year, Intel acquired Indisys, which was called the “intelligent dialog” company. I couldn’t find further information on how Intel utilized the Indisys technology. In the case of the Ginger purchase, Intel has added at least two engineers to its team. Yael Karov, CEO and Chief Scientist of the personal assistant division of Ginger and Micha Breakstone, an expert in NLP, are reportedly both moving over to Intel as part of the acquisition.

I found a lengthy interview with Yael Karov from last February, which includes some impressive demos of the Ginger virtual assistant technology.

As others have noted, competition in the hot virtual assistant space is picking up. It makes life interesting for those of us keeping a close eye on the virtual agent / personal assistant market.

Can Cortana Live Up to Her Personality?

Tom Simonite recently published a piece in Technology Review about  the capabilities of Microsoft’s Cortana virtual assistant. Simonite spoke with Larry Heck, an engineer at Microsoft and a contributor to the Cortana project. According to the article, Cortana has some key capabilities that distinguish it from Apple’s Siri.

CortanaHeck contends that Cortana can track the meaning and context of conversations longer than Siri can. In the article, Simonite uses the example of someone asking Cortana to find a cheap Japanese restaurant close by. Once Cortana returns results, the virtual assistant is able to correctly respond to follow up queries such as “Which ones are still open?” and “How long will it take me to get there?” The ability to maintain the context of the conversation during these simple follow up questions would be a noticeable  improvement over current virtual assistant technologies.

By using the capabilities of Microsoft’s Bing search engine, Heck says that engineers are also developing ways for Cortana to access knowledge from the web in real time to respond to people’s questions.

Simonite also spoke with  Norman Winarsky, VP of SRI Venture at SRI International, for his insights. Winarsky makes two points that I find especially interesting. The first point is that user expectations are much higher for virtual assistants that are given a human personality. Users just naturally expect a virtual assistant in the persona for a “Siri” or a “Cortana” to be able to understand them and communicate with them according to the rules of natural human conversation. Simple mistakes in the dialog, which happen frequently with today’s limited conversational technology, aren’t easily forgiven and quickly cause user frustration. Simonite speculates that these unmet expectations may contribute to the fact that few people are actually using Siri. Anecdotal evidence seems to indicate that users are less frustrated by the personality-free Google Now.

The second point is that virtual assistants are much more effective when they’re implemented for a narrow, specialized area. They run into trouble  when they try to go broad. Winarsky points out that Siri was originally designed to handle queries for travel and entertainment. It’s much easier for a virtual assistant to understand questions and respond appropriately if the context of the queries is limited to a specific domain. Once Siri was expected to handle a much broader range of inquiries, the performance of the technology suffered.

Although there’s no discussion of web self-service virtual assistants (along the lines of Nuance’s Nina) in Simonite’s article, the same two observations probably still apply. Intelligent virtual agents that act as extensions of a brand’s customer service can perform reasonably well, because the range of questions they’re likely to receive is limited. On the other hand, the more such virtual agents are designed to mimic human call agents, the quicker customers are likely to become frustrated by the technological limitations.

It will be interesting to keep an eye on Cortana and see if this relatively new personal virtual assistant can live up to the early hype. At the same time, we’ll be on the lookout for how vendors of personal assistants and web self-service virtual agents handle the dual challenges of personality and specialization (or the move away from it).

 

Shortcut App Lets You Control Home Devices With Voice Commands

Techcrunch ran a post this week about Shortcut, a voice-enabled mobile app that helps you control all the connected devices within your home. The company behind the Shortcut app was founded by Duy Huynh, Justin Lucas, and Binh Nguyen and is backed by 500-Startups.

ShortcutThe basic idea behind Shortcut is that we need a simple way to control the numerous different devices that already surround us in our homes, or are about to surround us. How can we really benefit from smart toasters and coffee makers and thermostats, lights and door locks, if we have to call up a separate app and interface for every single device? That would almost be like having to grab a separate remote to interact with each individual channel on our TV set.

And why settle for a dumb remote when we can use voice technology to simply talk to the controller? Shortcut is like a mobile personal assistant specifically trained to control all your smart devices based on simple voice commands. Huynh and his team aren’t trying to create an assistant that you can really converse with. The Shortcut app is only trained to understand and execute targeted commands for specific devices.

According to Techcrunch, the app takes advantage of public APIs to connect to third-party devices that offer them. It works with companies such as Sonos, Jawbone, EcoBee, Unikey and others to develop integrations where public APIs aren’t available.

Yesterday I wrote about Bill Meisel’s summary of the Mobile Voice Conference 2014. Meisel mentioned specialized personal assistants, which have targeted abilities in specific areas. Our personal assistants of the near future may know how to control smart devices for us, relieving us of the burden of learning how all these complex systems work. We can look forward to the day when we can just ask the mobile assistant to turn up the A/C and the music, start the coffee maker an hour later in the morning, and record a favorite TV show. The assistant will send all the required instructions to each device and make our wishes come true. Someday we might even be able to have a true conversation with that same virtual assistant while we’re waiting for our coffee to brew!