You may not know it yet, but you’re getting a new secretary. Someone to tackle the drudgery of everyday life like booking restaurants, checking the weather and responding to your messages. And the tech world is locked in a battle to build it for you.
Google is the latest company to throw its hat into the ring. Last week, at its annual keynote event Google I/O, the firm revealed its new artificially intelligent assistant. “It makes it easy to buy movie tickets while on the go, to find that perfect restaurant for your family to grab a quick bite before the movie starts, and then help you navigate to the theater,” Google announced online.
The help comes in a few shapes. There’s Google Home, a cylindrical device slated to come out later this year. Backed by the Google assistant, it fields vocal requests, like setting a timer for the oven or playing a specified song. With the messaging app Allo, people can request details about nearby restaurants, say, in the middle of a chat. Plus, a slightly unnerving “smart reply” function suggests pre-written texts to send to your friends, saving you the trouble of an actual conversation.
Google says the app can learn over time what you might want to say. For instance, in a demo, the app offers a texter sample greetings and comes up with lines like “aww so cute” to use in response to a picture of a child.
It’s all part of a new vision for the future that has seized tech companies. In this world, tasks can be completed through a simple conversation. Type or speak what you want to an AI, and it will parse your question, dredge up the right answer, and handle the formulaic process of, say, ordering a cab.
“Browsers will be a thing of the past,” said Geraldine McBride – founder of myWave, a virtual assistant company – at the Intelligent Assistants conference in New York City in October. “Why do I have to hop on to my website? Why do I have to key in my same information again and again?” Perhaps it’s time to let a bot do the dirty work for you.
This vision has inspired a spate of start-ups, such as X.ai’s Amy, which sets up meetings over email, and Ozlo, which helps you find somewhere to eat. Amazon has Echo, which sits in your home, quietly waiting for your next command. And Facebook is developing M into its messaging app.
Other familiar bots are to get a boost, too. Earlier this month, at hackathon event Disrupt NYC, the team behind Apple’s helper Siri demonstrated Viv. Viv is designed to take on the type of wordy inquiries that flummox Siri, like “Was it raining in Seattle three Thursdays ago?”.
In some cases, the tech lags behind the dream. That’s why, for Facebook M and others, human helpers will fill in the gaps. They step in when the program can’t handle a request, or review the response before it zips back. Engineers hope the human answers will train the AI to get better and faster on its own.
Allo, M, Amy, Echo, Viv… Only time will tell which will end up taking control of your life.