From the Nokia 6210, to my intelligent digital personal assistant.
The first mobile handset I received was the Nokia 6210, in 2000. It was a good year! I could send texts on the go, set an alarm, create a ‘to-do’ list, view and manage my calendar, use a voice recorder, and be amongst some of the first users to benefit from Bluetooth functionality. I loved it. Ever since this life changing purchase, I systematically upgraded my Nokia’s to keep up with the tech. Until suddenly Nokia stopped being cool and I found myself using a smartphone, which surprisingly felt like a very natural and seamless upgrade.
11 years on from my first Nokia, Apple introduced Siri (an integrated feature of the iPhone 4S, in October 2011) – the first intelligent personal assistant (IPA) as part of a smartphone. Soon after the release of Siri, the other tech giants followed suit and we had the choice of Alexa (Amazon), Google Now (Google), M (Facebook), and Cortana (Microsoft). Siri opened up a new era with smartphones getting smarter, and more integrated. IPA is now also enabled on devices other than smartphones; for example Siri is now available on watch OS, Car Play, iPads, Apple TV, and possibly coming to the next version of Mac OS X. Cortana is available on desktops, mobile devices, and Xbox One. Alexa can control several smart devices using herself as a home automation hub; CoWatch and Invoxia are great examples of how Alexa has been used to connect with multiple devices around.
Intelligent personal assistants (IPA) as we know them are reactive to our actions and have numerous pre-programmed responses. They use a natural language user interface and can perform actions by directing and sourcing the answers on the web. As I discovered in an article online “Google Now and Cortana are no different. All these personal assistants operate on a flowchart, rules-based system. Your analog voice is translated into binary code, which Siri’s servers then interpret, pull variables out, and apply to a chart.”. The key feature of IPAs, as we know, is the voice recognition technology which allows the users to perform tasks with voice commands alone. Siri users can verbally interact with applications such as reminders, weather, stocks, messaging, email, calendar, contacts, music, web browser, maps (and more)…simply ask the questions, and get the answers. Alexa’s users can benefit from voice interaction, as well as Alexa’s ability of tasks such as music playback, creating to-do lists, setting alarms, streaming podcasts, playing audiobooks, and providing weather, traffic and other real-time information.
Voice recognition technology is the pillar of current IPA, and it has been in constant development and refinement to ensure it is able to understand both regional and foreign accents, recognize the languages, and hear the commands correctly. Voice recognition technology has already evolved to the point where it can learn from the data it collects. As stated in an article on Tech Crunch ‘Put simply, voice recognition in machines is getting very good and is going to get so good that it will completely change the way humans interact with their computing devices.’ The tech improvements in this area are tremendous, and are driven by deep learning approaches combined with massive data sets. This trend is leading the change from graphic user interface, to a more conversational user interface where there will be more talk, and less buttons (or all talk, and no buttons).
“It’s about taking the way that humans have naturally interacted with each other for thousands of years and applying that to the way they interact with services.”, Mr. Dag Kittlaus.
…So what’s next?
While browsing online and researching AI, I became certain that we have entered the AI era and that things are just about to shake up. Just recently we were officially introduced to Viv, the new generation of IPA. It is a smarter version of Siri, Google Now, and Cortana etc. Viv will not be tied to any particular device, therefore it will be possible to integrate it with anything; from smartphone to cars, and even washing machines. Viv will be proactive. When receiving Viv, it will be almost entirely blank except for a few basic concepts. In contrast to Siri, Viv will learn from the data it collects and it will be able to generate code and make predictions based on what it learns. It will be unique to each device, and therefore unique to you. Viv will collect all the information about your preferences, and begin to build a knowledge graph about you. It will constantly use the new knowledge its learned about you to reinforce, fact check, and challenge its assumptions about what you want, what you might like, and what information is most relevant to you. Viv will open a whole new world for consumers and programmers, and it will most likely once again transform the way we interact with smartphones and perform search.
IPA’s aim is to assist you in your everyday life, and help complete everyday tasks in faster and more efficient way. Having a smart assistant that you can speak to, and who understands you, could definitely speed things up. It will eliminate the time spent on clicking through multiple apps and internet browsing, as the user will be able to access multiple data sets from different apps and sources just with voice command. If using Viv, it will be able to combine all the relevant data found into logical answers or actions. During the preview at the annual tech conference at TechCrunch, Dag Kittlaus showed off a demo of Viv by asking it to order flowers for his mum. ‘Send my mum flowers for her birthday.’, he said. With just a few words from Mr Kittlaus, a lovely bunch of tulips were on the way to his mum’s house.
Wowed by Viv I searched for its competitors. I have not found any precise updates on the next generations of Google Now or Cortana. However, I did undoubtedly learn that IPA’s like Viv are a current cause for substantial investments. Mr Kittlaus himself has acknowledged that “pretty much every major technology company is now investing billions of dollars in the intelligent-assistant space… a race for a single interface for the user.”.
I’m certain we would all agree that the idea of accelerating change is real, and technology is developing in leaps and bounds. “We’re kind of in an AI Spring.”, as stated by John Giannandrea, Google’s head of machine learning. There are some interesting times ahead, and it’s possible that before long we will regard our current smartphones as archaic, and each own an intelligent personal assistant to help us with all day to day tasks. The notion of AI and its potential possibilities can make us feel uncertain. For consumers there is still a lot to learn in this area, and it will undoubtedly change the way we conduct our lives. I believe the public conversation about AI is only just starting, and it will have a dramatic impact on all areas of our personal and professional lives.