A few years ago, the Pentagon launched a program to create a fully functional HAL 9000 - the intelligent software robot depicted in the 1968 sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey.
If you'll recall, HAL carried on conversations in natural language, monitored the spaceship and communications from Earth and notified the crew about important events just at the right time. HAL could also make decisions, prioritise and learn.
The Pentagon's project was called CALO, for Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes. The five-year program enlisted more than 300 researchers from at least two-dozen universities. This massive effort was organized by a brilliant guy named Adam Cheyer, who served as the project's chief architect.
And Cheyer is still building HAL. The only difference is that HAL will live in your iPhone.
If you've got an iPhone, you can download Siri's "virtual personal assistant" app free of charge. To use it, you just talk to the app. Say you want to make a restaurant reservation. Siri will intelligently suggest a few based on your location and preferences. When you pick one, Siri will make the reservation for you.
Apple bought Siri and hired the world's leading expert in HAL-like artificial intelligence robots to lead its iPhone engineering team for only one reason: Apple knows phones will evolve into virtual personal assistants.
Apple's advantage is that it's good at integrating functionality and making it seamless and elegant. The company is also disciplined about rolling out only the aspects of new technology that are ready for prime time. So we can expect HAL to be integrated into our phones one feature at a time.
But Apple isn't the only company with an advantage.
Google's version of HAL
In the movie, HAL performed its amazing feats in part because it had access to a lot of data. He was able to monitor all computer and spaceship systems. HAL also knew everything about the people he interacted with. You know, like Google does.
If you're a heavy user of Google services, Google knows who you are, where you are, what you're interested in, who you know and much more.
Google intends to leverage all of that data to transform its search technology into a HAL 9000-style personal assistant that communicates with you through your cell phone.
As I detailed in this space last week, Google will add proactive interruption as a way to make search even faster than instantaneous. Google will give you results before you even know you want to conduct a search.
The Google HAL will constantly monitor your e-mail, your calendar, your social activity, your searches, your whereabouts and other data, run it all through some massively sophisticated algorithm, and then beep your phone and tell you something like this: "It looks like your lunch with Steve conflicts with the parent-teacher conference your wife just invited you to. Would you like me to reschedule the lunch?" You'll say, "sure, go ahead," and Google's HAL will take care of it for you, getting Steve's OK and then changing your restaurant reservation.
Like Apple's HAL, the Google version will learn from your responses, becoming more accurate and relevant the more you use it.
Alarm clock HAL
One myth about innovation is that it comes about as a "eureka" moment of spontaneous creation, producing an idea radically different from anything that came before.
The truth is that the big new ideas are always "in the air" - many people are working on them because technology evolution brings the industry to the point where these ideas are inevitable. And then it's all about the execution, timing, funding and so on.
Everywhere you look in technology today, you'll see these kinds of virtual assistants emerging. It's an idea whose time has come.
This week, a tiny startup called Zazu launched an iPhone and Android app called Zazu Mornings. The current beta app will wake you up like a conventional alarm clock and present you with a button. When you press it, the app will tell you (in a pleasant voice) the time, date and weather, and show you top headlines and what your schedule looks like. When the current app is finished, Zazu mornings will tell you the most important things happening with your friends and family ("Janet had her baby last night. It's a girl!"), update you with changing events ("Steve wants to postpone your meeting until Friday") and notify you of any other relevant information.
While it's starting with a fancy intelligent alarm clock, Zazu is planning a virtual assistant that stays with you all day, briefing you on upcoming events, telling you personal and historical information about the people you're about to meet with - that sort of thing. The company intends to add natural voice interaction in both directions, so dealing with Zazu will be like interacting with a human personal assistant.
The fictional HAL served mainly as an interface between humans and a vehicle - in that case, a massive interplanetary spaceship. But your car could also use one.
Audi recently introduced a HAL 9000 of sorts for all of its new car models. Called AviCoS, for Avatar-based Virtual Co-driver System, Audi's HAL was developed by researchers at Technical University Munich and Audi engineers. It functions as an in-vehicle expert about all the car's features and systems. The AviCoS system uses virtual reality and a video avatar to interact with the driver via spoken language. The system monitors what's happening with the car, but it avoids distracting the driver at inopportune moments, such as during acceleration, for example.
A startup called Whodini opened this week. Its core technology is an artificial intelligence engine designed to find experts inside your own company, and also present your own expertise. The company's algorithms can scan through your professional activity and figure out what you're good at. It then compiles a profile that, with your approval, is made available to co-workers or to the public.
When you're working on a project and need some advice, assistance or additional manpower, you simply search the Whodini system like you would Google. The algorithms match your search to the people who can help you.
Whodini doesn't have fancy voice interaction. But the idea of using software to sift through massive amounts of data and then make sense of that data and make suggestions based on it is the secret sauce behind this product - and it's the basic functionality of the many HALs that we'll meet in the coming months and years.
The interesting thing about this virtual assistant idea is that it won't just come to you as a discrete application or service. It will be baked into the products and services you're already using. Your iPhone will become one. Your search engine will too. Even your car.
It all sounds pretty cool, but there are potential downsides. Virtual assistants will violate your privacy, make decisions for you and potentially make mistakes on your behalf. As we come to rely upon them, we'll miss important facts and events when the software errs.
Of course, such problems can only be attributable to human error. At least that's what your phone will tell you.
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