I spent a lot of time this week talking about personal assistants thanks to Google finally announcing its operating system for the internet of things (dubbed Android Things) and taking its Weave communications protocol out of developer preview. The news was big, but that same day Microsoft said it would release a software development kit so developers could use its personal assistant platform called Cortana. To add to this news glut, Amazon is laying out a plan to let developers bring their data to AWS where the e-commerce giant will offer custom or tunable artificial intelligence algorithms. So it’s clear that the big brains in the tech industry see a voice interface, artificial intelligence and a developer ecosystem as the necessary tools for the next era of computing.
That era of computing will be driven by a connected everything, controlled by a natural language interface driven by text or voice, and will require a back-end intelligence that can parse meaning, determine what applications are or services are needed, and then call them up. This is a fairly big shift from the era of a user searching for an app or someone typing in commands on a website.
To make this shift approachable for the rest of us, the industry has latched onto chat bots and this concept of a personal assistant.
What everyone wants to know is, “who will win?” Is Amazon’s ecosystem of developers enough to fend off Google’s astonishing AI in the form of Google Assistant? Where is Microsoft’s hardware strategy? Does is need one? Where is Apple in all of this?
These are great questions, but maybe we are jumping the gun. While I believe that most of our day-to-day decisions in 20 years will be augmented by computers, I question if a personal assistant is the right metaphor for what computing will be. It’s a seductive vision. I love asking asking Alexa what’s on my calendar for the day and getting a response, but it also seems to occlude what is awesome about computing.
For me, computing is about scale. It’s about taking gobs of information and making it accessible in a format that works for the user. And I’m not sure personal assistants always work for the user. I don’t want to have to ask for everything I want.
As an example of computers stepping in with their awesome scale and archive of facts, take spell checking. When you are typing in a text document, very few of us have to ask the spell check feature to run. It automatically will draw your attention to misspelled words with a red underline line. In some formats it may even correct it for you (the dreaded autocorrect).
Having a personal assistant that you ask for information is like running spell check manually. Having good AI that can determine what we need when we need it should move us closer to an autocorrect model. Although, like autocorrect on the phone, the times the computers get information wrong will be exponentially more noticeable and irritating.
So what do we need for the next generation of computing? Less of a personal assistant that we ask questions of and more of an anticipatory model infused throughout our devices and services online. And for that, the current model of having two or three big players who are trying to develop along different platforms and capabilities with different vocabularies to set off various actions is too complicated.
The winner here won’t force users to call for a particular digital butler, whether it’s Siri, Cortana or Alexa. Instead, it should have a natural user interface that allows text, voice and possibly even cues like where a person is in their home or office, to feed them information as it’s needed. It should also have a way to identify users and store information about them, such as their preferences and payment options. When it comes to identity Amazon has a big lead here. So does Apple.
I’m not against personal assistants, I just think it’s too small a metaphor to cover where computing is heading. And I think that if we want to talk about winners and losers, we should understand what metaphor the big players are actually using when they picture the future. We should seek to shape those metaphors with our own imaginations. Because unlike the past, computing is about to become a lot more flexible even as it takes a larger role in our lives.
Let’s try to make it work for us.