Small Bore: Is Apple Thinking ‘Different’ Enough?

“Apple’s view increasingly feels like an outdated way of thinking about tech. Many of its competitors have been moving beyond devices toward experiences that transcend them,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. These new technologies exist not on distinct pieces of hardware, but above and within them … it’s hard to tell if Apple is thinking big enough.”

“Apple still seems to view online services as add-ons to its devices — not as products or platforms that rise above them.” For example: “Siri, as Apple is positioning it, is becoming a better app launcher for your phone … But it’s not clear that it’s becoming a truly intelligent assistant.”

“One problem is that the new Siri will not integrate with all kinds of apps … It’s hard to shake the suspicion that Apple is using Siri to give its own apps a leg up … Another problem is that Siri is still hopelessly tied to each Apple device … If Siri is an intelligent assistant, why … can’t she call Uber from the cloud, regardless of which device you happen to be using?”

“Google, Amazon and several start-ups seem to be rushing headlong to build such a system. But … I’m not sure Apple is,” Manjoo writes. “It’s taking a more moderate app-based, device-centric path. Many of its voice features will be fine — useful, even. But it sure isn’t pushing for a revolution.”

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Designing Virtual Assistants: Poetry in Automation

The Washington Post: “As tech behemoths and a wave of start-ups double down on virtual assistants that can chat with human beings, writing for AI is becoming a hot job in Silicon Valley. Behind Apple’s Siri, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana are not just software engineers. Increasingly, there are poets, comedians, fiction writers, and other artistic types charged with engineering the personalities for a fast-growing crop of artificial intelligence tools.”

“As in fiction, the AI writers for virtual assistants dream up a life story for their bots. Writers for medical and productivity apps make character decisions such as whether bots should be workaholics, eager beavers or self-effacing … Even mundane tasks demand creative effort, as writers try to build personality quirks into the most rote activities … many developers of artificial intelligence make a point of adding a weird element to their avatar designs — such as an asymetrical face or an odd joke — something that signals that the virtual assistant isn’t human and doesn’t aspire to be … At the same time, the imperfections are meant to be endearing. A robot without such flaws could seem cold and alienating.”

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Conversational Commerce: Meet The Chatbots

The Washington Post: “While a Web browser might once have been our front door to the Internet and apps often play that role today, experts say that bots could soon become our primary digital gateway … The case for a bot-centric future goes like this: Smartphone users have proved they are only willing to download and spend time in a limited number of apps. So companies might be better off trying to connect with consumers in the apps where they are already spending plenty of time. And proponents say that a bot can potentially provide greater convenience than apps and Web searches because it can understand natural speech patterns.”

“Because bots are designed for one-to-one conversation, they may ultimately find their most logical home in messaging apps, which are seeing explosive growth in users and are the digital-communication channel of choice for Generation Z … It is against that backdrop that big retailers and Silicon Valley are racing to develop ways to use bots within messaging apps to deliver customer service or to enable browsing and buying … In retail industry jargon, this is coming to be known as “conversational commerce,” and brands are betting on it because of some distinct advantages it could provide in connecting with shoppers.”

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A.I. Design: ‘The Next Big Thing’

“The tech industry’s new architecture is based not just on the giant public computing clouds of Google, Microsoft and Amazon, but also on their A.I. capabilities,” The New York Times reports.

“There is going to be a boom for design companies, because there’s going to be so much information people have to work through quickly. Just teaching companies how to use A.I. will be a big business,” says Diane B. Greene, the head of Google Compute Engine.

She adds: “We may build an A.I. system to figure out all the ways businesses can use this. The relationship between big companies and deep machine intelligence is just starting.”

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Echo: Amazon’s Next Billion Dollar Baby?

“A bit more than a year after its release, Amazon’s Echo has morphed from a gimmicky experiment into a device that brims with profound possibility,” writes Farhad Manjoo in The New York Times. “Here is a small, stationary machine that you set somewhere in your house, which you address as Alexa, which performs a variety of tasks — playing music, reading the news and weather, keeping a shopping list — that you can already do on your phone.”

“But the Echo has a way of sneaking into your routines. When Alexa reorders popcorn for you, or calls an Uber car for you, when your children start asking Alexa to add Popsicles to the grocery list, you start to want pretty much everything else in life to be Alexa-enabled, too. In this way, Amazon has found a surreptitious way to bypass Apple and Google — the reigning monarchs in the smartphone world — with a gadget that has the potential to become a dominant force in the most intimate of environments: our homes.”

“Many in the industry have long looked to the smartphone as the remote control for your world. But the phone has limitations. A lot of times fiddling with a screen is just too much work. By perfecting an interface that is much better suited to home use — the determined yell! — Amazon seems on the verge of building something like Iron Man’s Jarvis, the artificial-intelligence brain at the center of all your household activities.”

“Scot Wingo, the chairman of ChannelAdvisor, an e-commerce consulting firm, said the early signs suggested that the Echo was on a path to become Amazon’s next $1 billion business.”

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A.I., Innovation & Watson

The New York Times: “Silicon Valley veterans argue that people routinely overestimate what can be done with new technology in three years, yet underestimate what can be done in 10 years … Predictions made in the ’90s about how the new World Wide Web would shake the foundations of the media, advertising and retailing industries did prove to be true, for example. But it happened a decade later, years after the dot-com bust. Today’s A.I., even optimists say, is early in that cycle.”

“IBM’s early struggles with Watson point to the sobering fact that commercializing new technology, however promising, typically comes in short steps rather than giant leaps … Watson’s early struggles in health care are viewed as a learning experience. The IBM teams, the executives say, underestimated the difficulty of grappling with messy data like faxes and handwritten notes and failed to understand how physicians make decisions.”

“IBM is trying to position Watson as the equivalent of an A.I. operating system, a software platform others use to build applications. Nearly 80,000 developers have downloaded and tried out the software. IBM now has more than 500 industry partners, from big companies to start-ups, in industries including health care, financial services, retailing, consumer products and legal services.”

Jeremy Howard, CEO of Enclitic: “You have to take technology that works and apply it to a known problem. Innovation alone is a mistake.”

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Stories Can Teach Machines How To Behave

“Mark Riedl and Brent Harrison from the School of Interactive Computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology have just unveiled Quixote, a prototype system that is able to learn social conventions from simple stories,” reports The Guardian.

“A simple version of a story could be about going to get prescription medicine from a chemist … An AI (artificial intelligence) given the task of picking up a prescription for a human could, variously, rob the chemist and run, or be polite and wait in line. Robbing would be the fastest way to accomplish its goal, but Quixote learns that it will be rewarded if it acts like the protagonist in the story.”

“Quixote has not learned the lesson of ‘do not steal,’ Riedl says, but ‘simply prefers to not steal after reading and emulating the stories it was provided … the stories are surrogate memories for an AI that cannot ‘grow up’ immersed in a society the way people are and must quickly immerse itself in a society by reading about [it].’”

“The system was named Quixote, said Riedl, after Cervantes’ would-be knight-errant, who ‘reads stories about chivalrous knights and decides to emulate the behaviour of those knights.'”

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The Design Science of Conversational Agents

“The challenge of creating a computer “personality” is now one that a growing number of software designers are grappling with,” reports The New York Times. “A new design science is emerging in the pursuit of building what are called “conversational agents,” software programs that understand natural language and speech and can respond to human voice commands. However, the creation of such systems, led by researchers in a field known as human-computer interaction design, is still as much an art as it is a science.”

“Most software designers acknowledge that they are still faced with crossing the ‘uncanny valley,’ in which voices that are almost human-sounding are actually disturbing or jarring … Beyond correct pronunciation, there is the even larger challenge of correctly placing human qualities like inflection and emotion into speech. Linguists call this ‘prosody,’ the ability to add correct stress, intonation or sentiment to spoken language.”

“The highest-quality techniques for natural-sounding speech begin with a human voice that is used to generate a database of parts and even subparts of speech spoken in many different ways. A human voice actor may spend from 10 hours to hundreds of hours, if not more, recording for each database.”

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Jolly Roger Telephone: A Cure for Telemarketers

The Washington Post: “A Los Angeles man with an unusual passion for phone systems created a new robotic answering service that wastes telemarketers’ time. Roger Anderson started the Jolly Roger Telephone, which lets users start a three-way call with the service so they can listen gleefully as the bot rambles on. It’s designed to provide entertainment and empowerment for everyone who has grown weary of the phone calls. Its first question of the telemarketers is often, ‘Is this a real person?'”

“Anderson experimented with different personalities for his robot before deciding that an odd man who just woke up from a nap worked best. For instance, the robot burned time by telling the telemarketer they sound like a former high school classmate, rambling on about needing coffee or asking them to start over again.”

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