Saturday, February 6, 2010

Your new Virtual Assistant on iphone: Can it deliver?

It always surprises me how little is known about Siri, the virtual assistant, outside the Semantic Technology circle which is still very small community. Intuitively, everyone understands what a virtual assistant can do or deliver but most of the people still think that these technologies are not really ready for serious use. For those of you who don't know, Siri was born out of SRI's CALO Project, the largest Artificial Intelligence project in U.S. history. (CALO stands for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes). Made possible by a $150 million DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) investment, the CALO Project included 25 research organizations and institutions and spanned 5 years. Siri is bringing the benefits of this technology to the public in the first mainstream consumer application of a virtual personal assistant. The Siri application is just released for iphones and you can download it for free.

Siri - The Personal Assistant in your Phone from Tom Gruber on Vimeo.

It uses Semantic Technology for intelligent mash-ups that automatically make connections, takes action and communicates information based on dimensions such as personal data, theme or task awareness, time and location awareness much the same way a real live virtual assistant working the Internet could. It is almost like a very personalized semantic search focused on concierge-oriented tasks but can also take voice as input.

I downloaded the application on my iphone and it did manage to surprise me pleasantly. This technology has come a long way! I did face few issues as sometimes it struggled to understand what I am trying to say. Actually, it uses Nuance technology for voice recognition.I don't know how it will work outside United States - basically, lets say if you are in India, China or Russia then can this virtual assistant deliver the same help as it can do in US?

All of us need virtual assistant at some point in our professional and personal life - more when we think that time spent on some tasks is not worth our time. Ofcourse, we won't mind as long as this virtual assistant is working free for us and giving us some extra input. Will we trust it enough to do high-value transactions just based on its advice? Maybe buying a movie ticket is not a big risk and the prices are almost standard. But beyond that? It really comes down to confidence we need to develop gradually in our virtual assistant so that we can start delegating more and more tasks to Siri or other similar virtual assistants in future. Nothing different from level of complexity of  tasks which we assign to out real life assistant - the trust needs to be earned everyday.

Release of Siri on iphone is still a very important milestone in a new era of AI and semantic technology-based applications.Can Siri build a formidable user base and become synonymous with the consumer Internet? It still has a long way to go and company will have to learn many things from its user base. Can it make enough money by just charging its affiliate network and giving the application to consumers for free? Time will tell this. I still think that the company can eventually make more money by making it more focused for business-oriented professionals. It just needs to think more about applying its technology to solve unique use cases. In the business scenario, it will still have to compete with other flavors of virtual assistants likeTimesvr, which is pronounced Time Saver. It is virtual assistant of different kind - an offshore-based online service which provides a task based (as opposed to assistant based) solution, where each task goes into a queue and is handled by whatever assistant (a real person) is available and qualified. It works surprisingly nicely and economically for few. Well, you can argue, it is not really fair to compare a top-notch AI/Semantic Tech. startup with an offshore-based service whose business model is basically labor arbitrage. But this is the reality of this flat world!You have to compete at every level and in all the fronts to make business sense!


  1. I signed up to be informed of their launch long ago, but evidently Siri forgot me.

    Now that it's out, I have to say: this is impressive but also an immense project if it's going to be truly general-purpose.

    I agree, Priyank: they will need to focus on particular domains or verticals, in order to carry off the vast number and complexity of request fulfillment pathways.

    Here's where I wonder about semantic tech and SOA or web APIs. Are there workflow ontologies?

    I see from a short test that they've incorporated OpenTable, which handles the book a restaurant use cases. Someone handling flight availability requests, but I suspect (from having built a booking engine) that actual booking online is a ways away.

    In order to flesh out the vision, they'll have to 'go deep' in certain areas.


  2. A Virtual Assistant is very in demand business today. It helps a lot in online business services and it's more cheaper.