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!



Meet Clippy, Your Personal Assistant

Bill Gates recently spoke at a Microsoft Research event about the return of Microsoft Bob and by association everybody’s favorite on-screen personal assistant, Clippy. Well, he didn’t literally say that MS Bob and Clippy would be back directly incarnate, but he said he could envision them returning in some form as part of a new wave of personal agents or assistants, but with “a bit more sophistication”. A bit more? That’s sort of like saying Michelangelo’s David is like the prehistoric cave art at Lascaux Caves in France, but with “a bit more sophistication”. I mean no disrespect by the way to those cave dwelling artists, who deserve a lot of credit for being among perhaps the first humans to create art, or at least art that was preserved.

A few weeks ago, I blogged here about personal assistants. My vision for them is nothing like Microsoft Bob and his sidekick, Clippy. And in an important sense, Bill Gates and Microsoft are not even at all like the early cave artists; Bill Gates and Microsoft did not pioneer personal digital assistants.

To me, the pioneers for software-based personal assistants were the people who developed expert systems starting back in the 1970s and continuing up to about the time that Microsoft Bob debuted in 1995. I’m talking for example about things like Mycin and Eurisko. Of course the logic rules for those systems were hand-coded, something that won’t scale if personal assistants are to become commonplace in our future. Expert systems also only worked well when applied in specialized domains where specific background knowledge about the domain could be encoded without needing to pull in voluminous knowledge about the everyday world around us. Maybe Microsoft Bob’s tragic failure doomed expert systems and AI? No, at least not on their own. I think what doomed expert systems and AI was the hype gap between envisioned and expected capabilities, the latter being capabilities that far exceeded the ability of technology at that time to deliver.

For the record, I also don’t consider Apple Siri and Google Now as true personal, virtual assistants or software agents. They are flashy and fun in large part because of their natural language user interaction abilities. I do, however, like that they convey a sense that they know a little about us and our everyday world (I just wish they ‘understood’ more), and that they are trying to help us accomplish tasks in that environment. Because of that, they certainly represent steps in the right direction. I’d like to see other steps — and, yes, that includes whatever Microsoft is working on, building on the foundation it laid down with Bob and Clippy [note, later revealed to be Cortana].

Who is doing work in this important area? Tempo AI, for example, is doing some neat things within the calendaring domain. Do you know of some others, and if so, can you share without exposing intellectual property? I’d like to hear about what’s coming, and if I can help get it here faster, just have your personal assistant contact me on your behalf!