Finally: Real virtual assistants

Finally: Real virtual assistants

Apple's Siri feature is supposed to be a "virtual personal assistant," and one that's "proactive" and "intelligent."

The truth is that Siri is none of those things.

Siri is a user interface that, mostly, makes it fun and easy to do things like get directions, find out information, set timers and make restaurant reservations.

Siri has impressive human-like voice interaction. You talk in regular language, and Siri responds in natural-sounding language, even appearing to chit-chat and crack jokes with you. It's cool, but ultimately it's just a parlor trick.

Google Voice Search, which accesses the awesome Google Knowledge Graph, is another impressive user interface that's typically and incorrectly labeled a virtual personal assistant.

Real personal assistants don't just do what they're told or answer the questions they're asked. They intelligently anticipate potential issues and prevent things from falling through the cracks. A real personal assistant is not a tool, but an ally.

Real personal assistants pay attention to what's important. They proactively bring things to your attention that would otherwise go unnoticed. They plan and prioritize.

Siri can reschedule your dentist appointment, but only if you discover that you need to change it and remember to ask Siri to do it.

A real personal assistant monitors your calendar, notices that your dentist appointment overlaps with your lunch meeting, brings that fact to your attention and asks which of the two you'd like to reschedule.

Siri can make things easier. But a personal assistant can save you from failure or embarrassment.

Apple's website says Siri helps you do everyday tasks. "All you have to do is ask." And that's the core reason Siri isn't a virtual assistant: You have to ask.

Siri isn't a personal assistant because Siri can't predict what's important to you and proactively bring it to your attention. It can't make judgment calls or do problem-solving on your behalf.

Suddenly, however, there's a new generation of free mobile apps that can do all this.

I call them "real virtual assistants" (an admittedly oxymoronic -- or maybe just moronic -- label).

"Real virtual assistants" are revolutionary. They threaten to overturn the tyranny of question-asking, and instead give you relevant answers when you never even thought of the question.

Just like a real personal assistant.

Three real virtual assistants


A free new iOS app called EasilyDo is marketed as an intelligent to-do list.

You connect the app to sources of personal data that include Facebook, your iOS Address Book, package-tracking services and more.

EasilyDo populates your to-do list with things that might otherwise escape your attention. It notices on Facebook that one of your friends got a promotion and suggests that you send congratulations. It tells you to pick up a package that will arrive later today.

The app will pop up an alert while you're in a meeting, telling you that you've got to leave now if you want to be on time for the next meeting. If you're going to be late, tap a button and it will inform your fellow meeting attendees.

EasilyDo can remind you to pay your bills, file your business receipts and even place calls for you. (If you're joining a conference call, it will even dial the access code.)

Google Now

The most powerful and impressive virtual assistant is Google's free Google Now. It's impressive because it goes out and finds sources of data that you never even knew existed. You don't have to explicitly connect it to this social network or that data service.

Google Now proactively tosses up relevant information in the form of "cards" based on what it learns about you over time. It will give you weather, traffic and sports updates, information about upcoming appointments, incoming package alerts, birthday reminders, event reminders and more, right when you most need that information.

If you're at a bus stop or train station, it will alert you to the next arrivals.

Recently, Google Now was updated to include the ability to access your Gmail account and grab airline boarding passes that can be scanned at the gate for easy boarding.

That's just the beginning of the Gmail-harvesting capabilities that give Google Now qualities similar to those of a real personal assistant.

Google Now debuted on Android devices, but it might soon be available on desktop computers running Google's Chrome browser, according to a post on a Google site for developers.

The addition of Google Now desktop capabilities would have breathtaking implications. Every action you take online -- searches, email, shopping, gaming, chat, social networking and more -- would become data that the Google Now virtual assistant could harvest to more intelligently serve you.

Google Now provides a powerful incentive for users to sign up for the full complement of personal data-harvesting Google services. (The privacy implications for all this are fodder for another column.)

Note that personal information gathered on the desktop would affect mobile use of Google Now, and vice versa.


A free new iOS app called Grokr is the closest thing iPhone users have to Google Now.

(As of this writing, Grokr had not yet been approved for public downloading in the App Store, but it should be available any day now.)

Grokr is supposed to work like Google Now, presenting you proactively with "cards" of information based on your context and history.

But Grokr is more Big Brotherish: It logs every location you visit and uses that information as the basis of future suggestions.

Presumably, for example, it will factor in your daily detour to Starbucks in calculating your morning commute time.

Grokr harvests a lot of data from Facebook, Twitter and Linkedin, which Google Now doesn't do. Grokr also gathers information from Yelp, Factual, Rovi and other sites.

It also looks for data in its own user-contributed and company-curated knowledge base, which the company claims holds 700 million facts.

Ultimately, however, Grokr is based on a predictive algorithm that figures out who you are, what your circumstances are and what you care about and then predicts what incoming information you want to know about.

The future begins today

EasilyDo, Google Now and Grokr represent the future of human-machine interaction.

Make no mistake: This is hardcore science fiction becoming reality.

Siri and Google Voice Search might represent the latest and most advanced way for humans to get information from machines in the old way. We ask the machine a question; it tries to give us an answer.

But the new generation of real virtual assistants represents the future of how humans will get information from machines.

Instead of giving us answers to questions we have asked, the assistants of the future will give us answers to the questions we should have asked but didn't because we lacked the information or awareness to know that we should ask them.

The future of "real virtual assistants" is here at last.

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