Sunday, December 25, 2016

Virtual Personal Assistants: How far will they go? Part 1

Gartner in a recent press release gave some predictions around "virtual personal assistants".

What are virtual personal assistants or VPAs?

Currently, they are the not-so-perfect voice-activated software that accompanies our mobile devices - Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana and Google has Google Now

On the latest Google phone, Pixel, they have Google Assistant:

Although only available for limited release, the video is actually a good summary of the promise of VPAs: the software that will help us coordinate our lives through our-ever-so-central-to-our-lives smartphones.

And that takes us back to how important these VPAs will become. According to Gartner, within two years 20% of all interactions with our smartphones will be through VPAs.

The press release from the research giant also noted some interesting stats on how frequently people are using Siri and Google Now.

In the UK/US, 54% of people surveyed used Siri in the last 3 months. With respect to Google Now, 41% have used it in the UK and 48% have used the service in the US (in the last 3 months). They also noted that they will move from simple tasks (e.g. setting alarms) to more complicated things such as executing transactions.

By 2020, Gartner predicts that VPAs combined with machine learning, IoT, biometrics and other technologies will enable 2 billion devices to operate without a touch interface.

How far can this go?

When I was thinking about writing this post, I thought about my first interaction with an artificial intelligent assistant.  However, before going there I thought it would be first interesting to go back to the movie "Her".

I saw the movie on the plane on one of the business trips that I took.

The movie is about the ultimate stage of, well, virtual personal assistants.

As noted in the trailer below, the "OS" is something that exists on the mobile device but acts as a central management point that brings a persons data together. In the movie, the OS (voiced by Scarlett Johansson) has a real personality that in a sense accompanies the protagonist, played by Joaquin Phoenix, everywhere. The movie goes a bit crazy as they apparently start "dating".

On a side note, I thought the movie was interesting as it speaks to how technology has filled the void in the life of the atomized individual. The story shows how the protagonist has had a bad breakup and turns to this OS for substitute companionship.

Sure this is far-fetched.

But how many times have we left a real conversation with a real loved one only to get to the virtual world of our phones? Of course, it's not some fake person but it's not difficult to see how we could switch the artificial world of VPAs because we have become accustomed to interacting with this endless streams of notifications.

The other part of the movie that I found interesting was how the mobile device is so nondescript. For someone like myself, smartphones have always had this novelty. But in the movie it's a not anything exciting to look at it. In a sense, what's more important is the actual OS running the device. As Gartner predicts, what becomes more important is the "touch-free interaction" between the OS and Joaquin - and the device disappears into the background.

Only time will tell how far this technology go. But I think it's fairly easy to see how such VPAs will become more entrenched in our lives the more "human" they become.

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