For those of us who grew up having to dial a recorded message and sit through every single announcement just to find out what time a certain movie was playing (and woe be unto you if you made noise while we were trying to scribble down the show times, thus having to hang up, call back, and sit through the entire list again), virtual assistants like Siri, Cortana, and Alexa are the Epcot Center wave of the World’s Fair future that we were promised back then. Virtual assistants can not only retrieve basic information for you, they can send and read your text messages as you drive, schedule your to-do list and set reminders to follow through, and even just tell you a joke if you’re in the mood.
They’re everything we ever wanted…except when they’re not.
Apple’s iPhone-based Siri is arguably in more handhelds and therefore in more users’ daily activities than Cortana or Amazon’s Alexa, but even “she” has trouble computing from time to time. Users have to be careful and specific how they phrase their requests, but at least she’s polite about not being helpful.
Fortunately, her creators have given the first public demonstration of her shinier younger sister, Viv. At this week’s Disrupt NY event, hosted by TechCrunch, developers demoed the more complex capabilities of “stacked” questions and requests, meaning far more in-depth information based on a field of stricter parameters. Not only what time is the movie playing…now we can ask what time the movie will be playing in conjunction with this other movie, for example.
The developers, Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer, explained Viv’s capabilities as basically being able to code a response based on what the user is intending to ask. It’s a far more in-depth complexity that requires the VA to “think” to itself, “What are you really trying to ask me?” For example, why would I want to know movie times on two different movies playing close to each other? Could it be so that I can watch one movie then grab tickets to the second one and watch that, too? Viv will be able to process what the original question means in terms of why a human would want to know this, and then base responses only around that type of query.
Here’s where things get fun. The developers have already had offers from other tech giants to purchase Viv; although they haven’t given any sign that they’re looking to sell, it does mean Apple could find itself with a smarter and more powerful competitor in the market. Is a more intuitive AI bot enough of a selling point to make iPhone devotees abandon ship? It’s too early to tell. But if the right competitor integrates Viv into its phones, it will be interesting to see if Siri learns a thing or two about intuition.