In this week’s newsletter, I look back on a lunch I had with Siri co-founder Adam Cheyer in 2014. Siri was a ground-breaking intelligent assistant. But his new, recently launched company, Viv, will put intelligence into much more than your smartphone.
Artificial Intelligence technology is slowly but surely making everything around us smarter. Some AI, such as IBM’s Watson, will take years to be fully utilized. Watson is currently being deployed as a medical research assistant, but it will have many other uses in years to come. Other AI, such as Siri and Google Now, are already widely deployed. Regardless of when and where these AI systems are rolled out, a common theme has emerged: AI is increasingly being used to augment human intelligence, rather than replace it. AI may as well stand for ‘Assistive Intelligence’, particularly if Viv is any indication.
I mentioned in a previous newsletter that virtual assistant software in your smartphone is probably the most popular form of AI right now. On iPhone the software is called Siri, on Android it’s Google Now, and on a Microsoft Windows phone it’s Cortana. All three enable you to ask a question – for example, will it rain tomorrow? – and a robotic voice will respond. I just asked that very question to my Siri and she responded, “It sure looks like it’s going to rain tomorrow.” Thanks for being a downer, Siri.
Phase 2: Mr Robot Cameos
That was phase one of intelligent assistants. Phase two will be AI devices that reside in our homes. An early example is Amazon Echo, which looks kind of like a mini-speaker. The idea is that you place the Echo in a common living area, such as your kitchen, and ask it questions. You can ask it to play music, give you the latest news, or forecast the weather like my Siri just did. The device is always-on and you just need to say its name, “Alexa,” to wake it. According to Amazon, Alexa is self-learning software:
“Alexa is built in the cloud, so it is always getting smarter. The more customers use Alexa, the more she adapts to speech patterns, vocabulary, and personal preferences.”
It must be getting very smart by now, because the Echo has become one of the most popular Internet devices of the year. It even made a guest appearance in the latest season of Mr Robot, one of my favorite TV shows. In last week’s episode, lonely FBI Agent Dominique DiPiero asked her Echo, “Alexa, when is the end of the world?” Alexa launched into an overly technical explanation about the Sun, but “several billion years time” was the gist of her answer.
Phase 3: Intelligence Everywhere
Echo is a nifty tool, but it still only scratches the surface of what an AI assistant will eventually do. The third phase of this trend will be intelligence embedded in everything around you. One company in particular is trying to make that a reality. Viv is being billed as “an intelligent interface to everything.” It’s been one of the most hyped startups of 2016, but in this case there is good reason to believe the hype. That’s because the team behind Viv is the same one that built Siri.
That team includes Adam Cheyer, the engineering brains behind both Siri and Viv. A couple of years ago, I had lunch with Adam Cheyer in San Jose, California. It was the end of May 2014 and I was working on a book project about Douglas Engelbart, the Silicon Valley pioneer who created arguably the world’s first personal computer. Cheyer worked with Engelbart in the mid-1990s, while at SRI International (previously called the Stanford Research Institute). Cheyer was particularly impressed by Engelbart’s vision that computers should augment human intelligence, not usurp it. He carried that philosophy forward into Siri, which was the pioneer among the three smartphone assistants mentioned above.
One thing Cheyer said that day in May 2014 particularly stuck with me. “When you do AI,” Cheyer told me, “my learnings from Doug was that you do it in the context of helping people – it’s just a tool. You’re not going to replace humans.” With Viv, which at the time we spoke was still in stealth, Cheyer and his co-founders at Viv are taking that augment philosophy another step forward.
What Viv Will Deliver
For a start, Viv will be able to answer more sophisticated queries than Siri and its ilk. In the first public demonstration of Viv in May 2016, co-founder and CEO Dag Kittlaus “ratcheted up” the familiar weather questions to showcase Viv’s intelligence. He asked Viv: “Will it be warmer than 70 degrees near the Golden Gate bridge after 5pm the day after tomorrow?” Despite the complex structure of the question, Viv was easily able to answer: no.
The other way Viv will extend what Siri achieved is to make itself a platform for third-party developers, so any software will be able to tap into Viv’s “intelligence.” Prior to Siri getting acquired by Apple in 2010, it reportedly accessed more than 40 third-party services. But after the acquisition, Siri was shut off from third parties completely. So Viv is a chance for Kittlaus, Cheyer and Chris Brigham (the third founder) to finally bring intelligent assistants to thousands – perhaps eventually tens of thousands – of different apps.
I’m sure there will be amazing new apps that emerge to take advantage of Viv’s platform, but even imagining what current apps could do with it is instructive. Imagine being able to talk to Spotify and ask it to find “music that inspired David Bowie’s 1995 album Outside.” If it correctly interpreted that query, Viv-powered Spotify would present you with a playlist that included acts like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry. Maybe even specific songs that Bowie once name-checked in an obscure interview archived somewhere on the Web. That would be very cool – and very useful.
If Viv is ultimately successful, then it’ll be a voice interface to the Internet for nearly everything. Not just Spotify, but you’ll be able to talk to items in your home and objects outside. John Battelle likened the potential of Viv to Google’s search interface in its early years. He said it’s “a new way to interact with the Internet,” just as Google search was a new way to interact with the Internet back in the mid-90s. It’s early days, but I think that’s a great comparison.
In conclusion, intelligent assistants are destined for more than a cameo in Mr Robot. If Viv’s potential plays out, they’ll end up featuring as background in The Young and the Restless, The Bold and the Beautiful, and every other popular tv program too.