SciTech

Paul Gilster: Your next personal assistant may anticipate your every need

If you buy the idea that the smartphone is going to emerge as the hub of our “Internet of Things” environment – where common items in the home like refrigerators and thermostats are networked into a controllable whole – then keep your eye on the personal assistant angle. Apple’s Siri and Android’s Google Now try to help you with daily tasks and simplify tasks using your phone, including creating calendar items, to-dos and checking a map. We’re seeing a lot of ferment in this area.

Right now Apple is working with IBM for what will surely be a fascinating blend of Siri and the Watson technology made so famous by beating everyone at Jeopardy. Google Now is getting better at figuring out what you need based on time and location, presenting you the results in a series of “cards” that learn from your inputs.

Problem solver

And while Microsoft’s Cortana is still in the hunt, we may learn to ignore the Windows Phone’s lackluster market share, because the software giant is thinking about releasing the software in iOS and Android versions. For that matter, think of Amazon’s uncanny way of suggesting books that may interest you. Like Netflix, the company learns from your previous choices and often hits the mark with selections you might not have known about but will now buy.

What the next generation personal assistant will aim for is pulling these early capabilities into a more powerful whole. Rather than leaving yourself a reminder to buy a birthday gift for a friend, you’ll be able to tell your phone to find the right title on Amazon. It will do so and execute the order. Tomorrow’s personal assistant will be a problem solver because it can combine inputs from its own software-initiated Web searches with its knowledge of your personal data. Give it free rein and it will execute complicated commands, a program that can find solutions on its own.

Such a vision underlies Viv, an intriguing startup from the same team that created the original Siri. Viv isn’t so much a smartphone feature as a continually learning assistant that can function across a wide range of devices by tapping into the cloud. The Viv creators hope to build software that customizes itself continuously to all your personal preferences. The future “smart” home may well have Viv capabilities built into its kitchen or entertainment center.

Expansive vision

Imagine a program whose essential strength is solving problems by initiating its own linkages between the abundant data resources of the Net while relating them to your calendar and personal life. Rather than your having to tell Viv to check travel times to your next sales call, the software will already have done precisely this while mapping the route and asking you to confirm whether you want to stay in the same hotel you did last time. If so, that transaction also happens, drawing from your credit card data. Any aspect of this particular journey – a favorite restaurant at destination? – will create further learning and action within the program.

The San Jose, Calif.-based team wants Viv to be an intelligent interface to any kind of product, from ATM machines to grocery carts. Its expansive vision will have you using voice as your input while dealing with your car and your microwave. Now it’s you that’s the hub, using an assistant that can anticipate what you’re going to do next and has the capability to act on your needs.

Whether or not Viv delivers on its promise, someone will. Artificial intelligence with a voice interface and cloud resources is the future and companies like Viv are hoping to pry it out of its smartphone ghetto and spread it out into society. When our daily tools are all listening for commands and responsive to a network like this, today’s personal assistants will seem like little more than toys. Viv aims at launching next year. How will Apple, Google and Microsoft react?

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at gilster@mindspring.com.

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