Paul Gilster: Opening up digital assistants to developers key to their evolution

App stores are interesting models for what is happening as we continue linking our devices. Think of their history since the emergence of Apple’s App Store in 2008. The iPhone offered a tightly controlled set of original apps but later opened up to let third party developers create their own tools. I’ll suggest that it’s that process of opening up to the widest pool of talent that makes the original product take off, supporting it with a broad base of community-generated software.

The app store idea isn’t original with Apple. For years, Linux has used a model of “mirrored” software (i.e., made available on many machines) that the user of a particular Linux version could use to download programs from a vast range of open source options. Apple has kept tight control over the apps that can appear in its app store, but moving to third-party developers was inevitable given that people were figuring out how to “jailbreak” the iPhone and install new apps anyway. Interestingly, we’re about to hit that same moment with another hot technology.

I refer to intelligent assistants, the increasingly interesting components of our smartphones that can accept voice commands and provide us with information we are about to need. The choice here is wide depending on your phone, with Apple’s Siri, Android’s Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana, the latter just being tuned up in versions that will run on both Apple’s iOS operating system as well as Android (Cortana is also built into the Windows 10 desktop operating system).

Customized assistant

Now think about these highly proprietary tools in the same way we once thought about the original Apple app store. Right now the companies involved are exploring their capabilities and adding new features to draw users to their respective platforms. But intelligent assistants will really take off when we stop seeing them as tied to particular companies’ smartphones.

At the University of Michigan, a project called Sirius is already exploring this turf. The school’s Clarity Lab is working on an intelligent assistant that is as open to development as Linux, an operating system whose software code is available for inspection and use by anyone. Sirius in its early manifestations has been made to work with Wikipedia, but the point is, an open intelligent assistant could be programmed to incorporate almost any database of knowledge.

What Sirius portends is the onset of virtual assistants for almost any function the user can imagine, a version of Siri or Google Now that we create from our own datasets and stoke with whatever knowledge we’d like to make available. If you’re a small business with an app or maybe a wearable device for sale, you’ll be able to customize Sirius to bring voice recognition and an onboard intelligent assistant into the mix.

Continued learning

Nor is Sirius a bargain-basement version of any of its well-heeled competitors. In addition to the expected speech recognition that allows it to understand you, Sirius offers cloud-based natural language processing, drawing on knowledge distributed on numerous servers, and image matching that can examine a photo you’ve taken and tell you about it, everything from the historical background of a building to scheduled hours of operation of the restaurant inside.

Make no mistake, digital assistants are getting smarter, and part of that is exposing them to the broadest range of inputs to promote continued learning. Opening them up to legions of new users is the magic moment, just as we saw with Apple’s app store, when a good idea surges and new products multiply. No wonder Facebook is exploring a digital assistant for Messenger, still in testing as the company experiments with the best way to build its datasets.

My guess is that digital assistants are a shadow of what they will be in five years as today’s experiments pan out in polished products. Internal product managers and developers will give way to an open and massive up-scaling of the concept. As our next generation digital assistants spread, they should inspire a new wave of voice-enabled mobile and desktop technologies.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at