Is CIA Behind Your Smart Phone’s Virtual Assistant?

No, I don’t mean the CIA as in Central Intelligence Agency  – although based on the recent revelations about the US government’s intrusion into our electronic lives, they might well be. I mean use of central(ized) intelligent agents (CIA). For example, does the intelligent virtual assistant app on your smart phone require all the data about you as an individual, and all the knowledge rules about what to do with that data, to reside in some centralized repository that embodies (or maybe, disembodies) you and your life? Put more bluntly, does the agent capability or agency depend upon central or centralized intelligence?

So far at least, based on popular intelligent virtual assistants like Google Now or Apple’s Siri, the answer would seem to be yes. Clearly companies like Google and Apple have a vested business interest in being the one place where all the data about your daily life is collected, analyzed and utilized to enable agents like Google Now and Siri to help make your life a little easier. And of course that data happens to be useful for targeting ads and services at you, too. In all fairness though, Google, Apple and others who may be taking a centralized approach to empowering intelligent agents aren’t necessarily doing so purely out of their own self interest. Arguably it makes things a lot easier from a technical perspective to have all that data and logic in one spot, harmonized and maintained by one company. It solves or at least mitigates myriad integration problems that would otherwise have to be addressed with the alternative, ‘distributed intelligence agency’ approach.

What are some of those problems? Well, to illustrate, here’s a (simple?) example.  If my intelligent virtual assistant doesn’t know that I drove to a place near my current geo-location and parked my car in a parking garage that closes at 10:00 PM, it might not know whether to recommend that I walk or drive to a nearby restaurant that it suggested for dinner based on my interest in Asian Fusion cuisine. Is it likely too far to walk (given my health, weight and normal walking habits)? Is it a safe neighborhood to walk in? At what time of day would I be walking and when does it get dark at my location? If I made reservations for more than myself, might others be walking with me? Will the weather be conducive to walking? If walking doesn’t seem reasonable, what are the alternatives (public transit, Uber/Lyft, or my car that’s presently in the parking garage)? If I decide to walk, am I likely to make it back to the parking garage before it closes? If it is too far to walk, but I prefer not to drive or take transit, are there other restaurants nearby with variants of cuisine that are similar to Asian Fusion? Or are there other restaurants with altogether different cuisine that would meet other dining interests or goals that I have expressed (e.g., “Someday I’d like to try one of those restaurants where everything on the menu contains garlic”)? What are my plans for after dinner? Do I have an early meeting or an early flight in the morning? How far is my home or my hotel? Moving seamlessly and quickly across the data and apps, including times, activities, tasks, places, people, personal preferences and other contexts without loss of data or context might well be easier if there’s one spot where all that data lives and one entity that manages it for me. But that comes at the price of “lock-in” and rigidity.

I’m a big fan of distributed systems in general, and so here in the specific case of intelligent software agents, my preference would be for distributed data and a distributed agent framework to enable collaboration across the various data sources, apps and entities that might be involved in agent-based transactions of this nature. That will likely take standards – de facto and de rigueur – or at least agreements among groups of vendors working in the intelligent software agent space. That includes vendors of both specialized ‘vertical agents’ and more general, ‘horizontal agents’. Will the W3C step up to this challenge? Will some other organization or body? Is the community of Android developers powerful enough to pressure Google to open things up at least when it comes to agents on Android? What about similarly for Apple and iOS? Without such action, the intelligent software agent space is likely to be driven entirely by a few big, well-known players who will compete through their own proprietary technologies built on the model of central(ized) intelligence agency. As technologists and/or consumers, is that what we really want?

Where do you stand? Are you for or against a CIA? Keep in mind, your intelligent virtual assistant might be listening to your answer!



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