January 31, 2010

The Birth of the Virtual Assistant

The Birth of the Virtual Assistant

Dag Kittlaus is the Co-Founder and CEO of Siri. He is a serial innovator and consumer wireless Internet veteran of 10 years in both Scandinavia and the US. Siri is Dag’s third consecutive mobile product.

In the near future, anyone who lives a connected lifestyle will be able to delegate their everyday tasks to intelligent virtual assistants that will coordinate, execute and simplify users’ lives.

We will look back on these days and ask ourselves how we ever got by without our trusted assistants, the same way my kids ask in amazement about how we ever got things done before laptops and the Internet.

What Constitutes a Virtual Assistant?

For a long time, Hollywood has been portraying machines that humans can converse with, delegate tasks to, and command. Remember the HAL 9000, KITT the car, COMPUTER from Star Trek, or even the brilliantly conceived and visualized Apple “Knowledge Navigator” from over 20 years ago?

They have symbolized our desire for trusted machine assistants that can help make our lives easier. They have persisted in the creative works of science fiction writers for decades. But have you ever asked yourself why that is? Looking beyond the theatrical and dramatic value of these ideas, the reality is simple — we have always desired more help, less hassle, and higher productivity in our lives.

What about search engines? Aren’t they the modern day version of this? No, at least not the search engines of today.

Search is a fantastic tool to help you find information on the Internet, but try to ask a search engine to actually do something for you. Try typing “get me a seat on the next flight from Chicago to Seattle” and see what happens. Or ask your favorite search engine to book you a table for three at Gibson’s steakhouse in Chicago for the day after tomorrow. Today’s paradigm of 10 blue links doesn’t cut it, and we need a new tool to help.

We need software that is specifically designed to help you get things done — a “Do Engine” rather than a search engine: A virtual assistant.

Intelligent Cohesion of the Tools We Already Use

Here is the good news: The elements, technology and ecosystem needed to build machines and software that can automate many of the mundane tasks of our lives are here already.

We just need to add a little intelligence. It will take some time, maybe 3-5 years, for the concept to mature. But when it does, it will emerge as the most frequently used and trusted online tool. It will make the most common actions on the web as simple as having a conversation. It will integrate into your life, get to know you, and be proactive.

In some sense your smartphone is starting to work like this already. There are already tens of thousands of services, apps, and sites that help you find and do things on the web and in the world. The problem is that they are all islands unto themselves, typically focused on a limited domain, and don’t often work together. They rarely share data or context with each other, have different user interfaces, and require users to spend a good amount of time to discover them, sign up, and get started. In terms of unified personal services, it’s not ideal.

Virtual assistants will help unify these and get them work together at your command. It would be nice to simply pull out your phone one day and tell it to move your 3 p.m. meeting to 5 p.m. and alert everyone invited of the change. That day is coming sooner than you think.

A New Chapter for the Web

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There is a direct relationship between simplicity and user engagement on the web. Less clicks means more users — period. When combined with tools like smartphones, virtual assistants will migrate user interactions towards a far more frictionless e-commerce, consumption and collaboration model.

You will soon pick up your phone and start asking your assistant things like “take me to live CNN news,” “send my dad the latest John Grisham book,” or “tell Adam I am running 20 minutes late,” and you will then watch it all happen. This evolution towards simplicity of interaction will reduce the barrier to almost everything you use your mobile device to do.

Furthermore, the device is always with you. The combination of simplicity, impulse opportunity, context, and preference will create the most explosive market opportunity in ages.

This will be a market in which every player along the line wins. Users will be able to click less, enjoy simpler interactions and receive much-needed help getting things done and managing their day. Participating service providers get simpler discovery, more transactions, and higher consumption rates. This then drives more data dollars to networks, fueling infrastructure expansion.

As proof, witness what a cool device called the iPhone() has managed to accomplish through a snappy and simple interface with shiny buttons and creative apps. That one device and the competitive response we are now seeing has created a complete transformation in computing.

The Anatomy of the Virtual Assistant

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The OS of virtual assistants will be the Internet itself, as Kevin Kelly postulated years ago. The brains will be AIs that are developed by software companies for both general purpose and targeted domains. The arms and legs will be web APIs (many of your favorite brands and services), and the connective tissue will be authentication protocols like OAuth and Open Social, and trust circles like those of Facebook().

The rapid maturation of technologies that enable free-form interaction such as natural language processing and speech recognition have vastly improved, to the point of gaining real adoption in many applications today (e.g. Google Speech, Nuance Dragon Dictation, Ford Sync for cars). Virtual assistants will leverage these inputs and begin to integrate them with conversations for a simpler, more natural way to get things done. This concept was best described by the late pioneer from MIT, Michael Dertouzos, who called it “human-centric computing.”

Over the long term, this paradigm will expand to many (or most) of the online services and tools we use to manage our lives like booking, buying, reserving, reminding, and scheduling. As we build trust in our digital “partner” we will put more and more onto its to-do list.

Trust is Key

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The vague promises of contextual awareness, personalization, and other generalizations have rarely materialized in real products on the web. We are wary of what personal information we share online, in search engines, and the the never-ending fear of credit card fraud still looms. But this game is changing with the open web.

Mark Zuckerberg is indeed correct that privacy is dead on the Internet among the digital generation. Hundreds of millions of people spend a great deal of time telling the world all about their personal interests and information that forms their “digital face” on sites like Facebook, LinkedIn(), Twitter() and others. This will only expand as the demonstrable benefits of this effort become more apparent.

The paradigm shift we will see with virtual assistants is that providing them with access to your preferences, tastes, accounts and more will be the cornerstone of the simplicity they will enable (within a very secure environment, of course). In other words, where we once feared how long search engines kept our personal information, we will now go out of our way to expend time and effort to specifically provide our trusted assistant detailed information about ourselves.

This will be done both manually and via syncing with existing sources of our personal data such as Facebook profiles, iTunes() music lists, and contacts. The point is that you will make your virtual assistant definitively yours.

2010 and Beyond

The experience will be like hiring a new assistant that doesn’t yet know you, but eventually becomes so familiar that you can’t live without him or her. Keep your eyes on this space, try out these products as they emerge, and prepare to make your life a bit simpler over the next few years.

As John Battelle has said: “The future of search is a conversation with someone you trust.” 2010 will be the year in which we start to see real progress towards this vision, on many fronts.

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Grammys: Imogen Heap Accepts Award Wearing “Twitter Dress”

Grammys: Imogen Heap Accepts Award Wearing “Twitter Dress”

The 52nd Annual Grammy Awards will air its televised portion tonight at 5 p.m. PST/8 p.m. EST, but the non-televised portion of the awards are already streaming live on the web. One of the early social media hat tips in evidence comes from artist Imogen Heap, who accepted an award for Best Engineered Album, Non-Classical wearing a specially crafted “Twitter Dress.”

The dress, which has its own Twitter feed, displays Twitter (Twitter) pics sent by fans in real-time using the hashtag #twitdress. The artist uploaded a pic of the “dress in progress” to her yfrog account last night (pictured below), with Twitpic (Twitpic) being used to handle the extensive stream of fan-submitted pics. She tweeted to earlier this morning that the dress was envisioned as a way to let fans “accompany me on the red carpet.”

The Twitdress idea is nothing if not a creative way to incorporate social media into the Grammys experience and — literally — bring the fans with an artist onto the stage. And besides — why let Lady Gaga have all the fun with the crazy outfits? Then again, if anyone is prepared to top the Twitter dress for craziest Grammy attire, it could be the Gaga — we’ll be watching to see if she whips out some Facebook () shoes, or maybe a Youtube () hat. Stay tuned!

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Social networking sites look to build profit

Social networking sites look to build profit

by Matt Moore Associated Press - Jan. 28, 2010 12:00 AM

DAVOS, Switzerland - The leaders of Facebook and other social-media sites have long seen some grim writing on their wall. While spectacular popularity has turned them into household names, they haven't found a way to transform all those friends, fans and followers into profits.

On Wednesday, in a rare encounter of rivals, the chiefs of Twitter, MySpace, Facebook and LinkedIn met with industry experts at the World Economic Forum to strategize.

The common theme: developing social networks so they get beyond socializing to drive humanitarian causes or help businesses better communicate with customers to increase sales.

While participants touted social media's ability to reach out, form relationships and keep people and businesses linked together, they offered scant insight into how the companies can make money, cashing in on their enormous fan base.

"What's important for them is to become indispensable to consumers," said Augie Ray, a senior analyst for social computing with Forrester Research Inc.

"For Facebook, one of the interesting things is the value of advertising that is super relevant and also increasingly involves the preferences and actions of your friends," he said.

Facebook, which draws revenue from advertising posted down the right side of its site, has generated buzz about a possible initial public offering this year. The site created a dual-class stock structure in November, a move that is typically a precursor to going public.

If it does go public, Twitter and LinkedIn may be tempted to follow, he said.

Evan Williams, chief executive and co-founder of Twitter, the wildly popular micro-blogging tool, said more and more small businesses were listening to their customers via the site, capitalizing on the way individuals build relationships across social-media platforms.

"This is the heart of what a lot of social networks are about, they're about communicating ... but they're also about relationships of all types," he said.

"Some of the stuff we're excited about with Twitter is an individual will follow a local business, a coffee shop, and get their special of the day."

Experts see huge business opportunities remaining in social-media sites. More and more, though, sites are migrating to a business-oriented landscape with posts from friends seeking work, restaurant recommendations or the best places to buy cars or computers.

That, in turn, means that "social media is becoming the operating system of a business," said Don Tapscott, chairman of nGenera Insight, an information technology think tank.

First Look: Apple IPad

Apple vs. Amazon: The Great Ebook War Has Already Begun

We’re not going to see the iPad hit stores for another two months, but it is already changing the ebook game and forcing publishers and consumers to pick sides.

Last night, several blogs including Venturebeat and NYT’s Bits Blog noticed something was amiss on the website of the world’s largest retailer: Amazon suddenly stopped selling books from Macmillan, one of the world’s largest book publishers.

Not every Macmillan book is gone, but popular ones such as The Gathering Storm are no longer sold by Amazon, either in physical or Kindle form. You can still find the Amazon pages for Macmillan’s books — you just can’t order the actual books.

According to the New York Times, the reason the books were pulled was the iPad. Macmillan told Amazon that it wanted to change its pricing and compensation agreement, upping the price of some books from $9.99 to $15 and splitting sales 70/30, the same model Apple uses for the iPhone app store and its upcoming iBooks store. Amazon’s apparent response was to flex its muscle and pull countless Macmillan books off the virtual shelves.

The Dynamics of the New Ebook War

Ever since we got word of the iPad’s existence, we’ve known that Amazon and Apple were on a collision course. Apple saw an opportunity to not only create a new category of device, but to get its hands into the publishing market. In the same way Apple has transformed music, the computing giant would reshape books and become the primary distributor of ebooks worldwide.

Back in September, we wrote a lengthy piece explaining why we believed Apple’s tablet would eat the Kindle’s lunch, displacing Amazon’s lordship over ebooks. We argued that its multipurpose functionality, color screen, and sexier interface and look would put it over the top. Now that we know the iPad’s starting price, ($499), our opinion hasn’t changed. While the Kindle will survive, its sales will likely never be the same.

Publishers like Macmillan apparently agree with us as well, otherwise they wouldn’t so boldly demand price changes from Amazon. Before the iPad was revealed, Amazon was the only player in the game. You played by its rules or you could take a hike. Now with a viable alternative only months away, publishers can run to Apple, where it will have more freedom over its ebook prices.

Amazon’s clearly worried, which is why it’s launching an app store and used its earnings report to remind us that the Kindle is far from dead. But if publishers decide to abandon the Kindle, then Apple will have won the war by default.

That’s why Amazon decided to use its biggest weapon, Amazon.com itself, against Macmillan to send a message to every publisher: If you don’t play by its rules, then you can’t be in its store. While a publisher can likely survive without the Kindle, the same cannot be said for Amazon.com. Publishers simply cannot afford to leave the world’s largest online retailer.

The Kindle and the iPad offer different experiences. The Kindle’s battery life and e-ink are strong selling points for the device as a reader, but the iPad offers so much more. Apple’s banking on those extra features and its undeniable reach to turn the Kindle into an endangered species.

Publishers now have to either choose a side or walk the tightrope between the two companies. The end result will be a long, drawn out war that will both help and hurt consumers. How it will end is anybody’s guess.

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