“Siri is chapter one of a much longer, bigger story,” says Dag Kittlaus, one of three of the original creators of Apple’s virtual personal assistant. The team, originally acquired by Apple as part of its $200M purchase of Siri, has now left the company to form a new startup, Viv Labs, to work on the rest of that story.
The vision described by the team in a lengthy piece in Wired is certainly ambitious. The problem with Siri, they say, is that it can only do things it has been explicitly programmed to do.
Though Apple has since extended Siri’s powers—to make an OpenTable restaurant reservation, for example—she still can’t do something as simple as booking a table on the next available night in your schedule. She knows how to check your calendar and she knows how to use OpenTable. But putting those things together is, at the moment, beyond her.
What Kittlaus and his team want to do is create a personal assistant which can learn to do new things for itself …
The secret, they say, is giving the system access to as many sources of data as possible and allowing it to intelligently combine data from each to make sense of natural-language requests.
One engineer explains how he has been refining Viv’s response to “Get me a ticket to the cheapest flight from SFO to Charles de Gaulle on July 2, with a return flight the following Monday.” In the past week, the engineer added an airplane-seating database. Using a laptop-based prototype of Viv that displays a virtual phone screen, he speaks into the microphone. Lufthansa Flight 455 fits the bill. “Seat 61G is available according to your preferences,” Viv replies, then purchases the seat using a credit card.
Unlike Siri, they don’t see Viv as something that would be tied to a particular piece of hardware, but rather made licensed to anyone from websites to car companies to TV manufacturers – possibly operating on a commission rather than charging a licensing fee.
Kittlaus cites a factoid about Match.com that he learned from its CEO: The company arranges 50,000 dates a day. “What Match.com isn’t able to do is say, ‘Let me get you tickets for something. Would you like me to book a table? Do you want me to send Uber to pick her up? Do you want me to have flowers sent to the table?’” Viv could provide all those services—in exchange for a cut of the transactions that resulted.
That, they argue, would be a truly intelligent virtual assistant.
The Viv team make no secret of the fact that they are at an early stage in development, and cannot say when they might be ready to launch. But one influential outsider who has seen it in action says he was “blown away” by it.
Vishal Sharma was until recently VP of product for Google Now. When Cheyer showed him how Viv located the closest bottle of wine that paired well with a dish, he was blown away. “I don’t know any system in the world that could answer a question like that,” he says. “Many things can go wrong, but I would like to see something like this exist.”
Viv are not the only former Siri team members working on next-generation personal assistants, but they have certainly set themselves the most ambitious goal. The full piece over on Wired is well worth a read.
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