Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Digital personal assistants: AI at your service, the ultimate "era of you" technology

I have to confess: I've never been senior enough in an organization to have my own personal assistant. But I've certainly worked closely enough with the vice presidents and C-suite crowd to see great personal assistants in action.
Digital personal assistants combine
elements of Hal 9000 and
Rosie, the robotic maid from
the Jetsons.
(without that annoying
"kill all the crew" part.)
Images from wikipedia.org

They know everything about what their boss is doing, where he or she is, what's important, and who has access.  They find things out, make appointments, get payments made and received, manage travel and entertainment: in general, they make the details of the boss's life easier, thereby letting the boss be more productive. Personal assistants are not appreciated nearly as much as they should be, but they are definitely seen as one of the great perks of being in senior management.

I believe that's about to change.

The evolution of several technology trends suggests  that one of the most important, disruptive, and profitable technologies on the horizon is the digital version of that invaluable staff member, with abilities augmented by artificial intelligence.  This is the ultimate expression of "the era of you" idea, in which technology gives individuals highly-customized services and information that once was the hallmark of the wealthy and highly privileged. It's augmented reality combined with someone you know and trust.

Today is an important day to get this story published, because a friend of mine posted a link last night to this story about news likely to break today from Apple:

Co-founder of Siri: Assistant launch is a 'world-changing event"

I had been alerting people to the importance of the Siri product before Apple bought it.  This is one of those "if A is possible and B is possible, then what C could exist?" tech trigger events.  Voice recognition, mobile connection, location awareness, and the ability to mash together useful information from multiple sources can all be brought to bear to make the personal assistant possible.

Here is an excerpt from an article I wrote in 2006, thinking of this idea as an extension of identity management:

“Even though he could pull up his entire office environment anywhere in the world, John made it a point to visit the office in person at least once a week, and today he had a face to face meeting with his marketing work team.  As the cab glided to a stop in front of the corporate research center, the display on his phone mirrored the charges on the cab system, and from the tiny wireless earbud he wore nonstop, his DC (digital concierge) asked “authorize to pay?” When he said “yes, add a $2 tip”, his voiceprint granted the payment; since the system knew he was in his business role, it compared the trip origin and destination, determined it was authorized business, and automatically billed the fare to his team project work center, while it took the $2 from his personal account. 
The door swung open steps ahead of John’s entry as a heads up display nearby showed “Welcome back, Mr. Porter”.  Although the system had wirelessly polled John’s phone to identify him and authorize his entry, if anyone else had tried to use the phone, it wouldn’t have worked.  The microchip implanted in John’s forearm had been digitally linked to his phone; without his presence, the phone and every bit of information it contained would have been useless. 
The 86th floor SE conference room had spectacular views.  When John entered the building, the room’s digital attendee list changed his name from black to blue.  Those already inside the conference room showed up in green.  “Hey Amy, who’s already here? Display only.” he asked his concierge. (Nobody had planned it, but as people began buying the concierge service from Google, they began insisting that it be programmed with personalities, and frequently referred to their computer assistant by name.) Since he didn’t need the names read to him, he just sent the list to the phone’s HD display. 
As John entered the conference room and sat down, the conference table recognized him, and his personal environment appeared on the screen at his seat, set to “work”.  When he finished the meeting, he’d switch to his personal life system and securely check home e-mail.  On presence screens throughout the company, people who had buddied him saw his status change to “in meeting, unavailable”.  John’s supervisor Ellen also had a second line under his name “marketing meeting at research center,” as did colleagues he had added to his work “trust list”. As his boss, Ellen had rights to call or message him in the meeting, but vendors and most of the rest of the world would automatically get his voicemail, IM catcher, or e-mail if they tried to reach him.”
Every event listed in John’s workday is possible with technology we now have.  Identity management tracks authorizations, yes.  But it also measures other crucial elements: location, presence, and role.  By interacting with the system day to day, users will build a complex database of their own preferences, overlaid with the rights and responsibilities that are part of work, family, and personal life. "

That was 5 years ago, but the idea is there: a friendly personal assistant, managing interactions between you and the world, seamlessly transitioning back and forth between business and personal life.  I called it a "digital concierge" then.  By now, I think it's pretty likely that facial recognition will be the authenticator rather than a two-part system using an implanted chip linked to a phone.  One key is the heuristic nature of the digital assistant.  It learns through interaction rather than complex settings of preferences, so it gets ever-better through use, and ever more personalized.

Once fully realized, I think the digital personal assistant will make some people rich beyond the dreams of avarice.  I also don't think a lot of people see this yet, so this morning, in advance of whatever Apple announces, consider this a heads-up.

--more on "the era of you," part of infrics.com's big ideas series

No comments:

Post a Comment