Friday, October 7, 2011

Your near-future life: meet Rosie, the digital personal assistant

In the not-too-distant future, a digital personal assistant will be a major part of your life. Trust me on this.  Here’s why:
It's a Jacobsen Egg Chair. Rosie told me.
  1. For all the tech miracles we live with every day, we are using a relatively small percentage of what’s possible in ways useful enough to really enrich our lives. We’re nearing a transformational moment in the way technology will bring ordinary people highly personalized and valuable services that once were the hallmarks of extreme wealth. Because of that, it’s an important reflection of the Big Idea, “the era of you.”
  2. We’re nearing simultaneous maturity of many enabling technologies to make the fully-realized digital assistant practical.
  3. The digital personal assistant offers the vendor who supplies it the nirvana of commercial technologists: the opportunity to be your gateway to all that richness of experience, and profit from nearly every interaction you have with the world. It will make the current battle for search look like a small skirmish.
Visualizing all the personal digital assistant promises: let’s tell a story.  In the fictional account from 2006 reported here, John Porter used a personal digital assistant as he went to a sales meeting in Chicago.  Today, he arrives at SFO for a meeting in Mountain View, deplaning in terminal 2.  He has named his next-generation assistant “Rosie.”

“Rosie, that was a short connection at ORD, did my bag make it onto this plane with me?”
Yes, American shows it on the loaded plane manifest. It’s coming out at baggage claim 2.  There are 2 Peet’s coffee locations in this terminal, the closest is just ahead on your left.”
  • GPS and compass to know where John is and where he is going
  • Web services interface to the AA information system
  • Accessing SFO online map and merchant list
  • Personal preference record: “alert me when an airport Peet’s or Starbucks is nearby.”
“Those midcentury lounge chairs are amazing, Rosie.  I’ve seen them before, who designed them?”
“That’s the Arne Jacobsen Egg Chair.”
“That’s it! Who sells them, what’s the price and availability?”
“Design Within Reach has them on sale through October 18, about $5000 in fabric, $11,000 in leather. Some colors are available for immediate delivery.”
“Hmm, I wonder.  Any mention of them from my friends?”
“Angela Roberts saw them in this terminal last month, and said, ‘I have GOT to get one of these’ in a Facebook status update.  There are 3 DWR stores in San Francisco, and one in Palo Alto, do you want to see the chair in person?’s currently not in stock at the Potrero Hill store, skip that one.”
“Any store near the Ferry Building? I’m going to the Farmers’ Market there tomorrow morning.”
“455 Jackson, near Sansome, it’s about 6 blocks from the Ferry Building. It closes at 5:00 on Saturday.”
“Perfect. Remind me when I finish lunch tomorrow.”
  • Image recognition, already possible with Google Goggles.  John will likely wear a microcamera in his glasses frame, or on his wireless earbud.
  • DWR website for product, sale, information
  • personal shopping history, Rosie knows that John has done business with DWR and likes to shop there.
  • Real time search of John’s social contacts and the information they have shared with him.
  • AI logic: Rosie learned from history that when John asks more than one followup question, she should volunteer additional detail.
  • Real-time access of individual store inventory from DWR
  • Interaction with online maps and mashup of multiple locations
“Uh-oh. Rosie, I know this woman walking up, and she obviously recognizes me, but who is it? Where do I know her from?”
“That’s Meg Whitman, past CEO of HP. You spoke with her at the executive briefing last spring.”
“It is? But she looks so different! What happened?”
“The San Francisco Chronicle reported that, after she was ousted by the board, she “had a complete change of heart about corporations and politics.” She’s currently advising on strategy.”
“I had heard that, but tie-dye?”
“It appears to be from Made by a  handcrafter in Berkeley.”
“Quick, what’s the situation at HP now?”
“She was the CEO before Steve Ballmer.”
“You mean...”
“Yes, before Ballmer was ousted in favor of Robert Scoble. She’s been gone from HP for 4 months. I sent her a note on your behalf congratulating her on her work with progressive politics.”
“MEG! How nice to see you again, you look wonderful!”
  • Facial recognition
  • Personal interaction history
  • real-time access of historical news records

(aboard the tram to the car rental center)

“Rosie, how long until my first meeting in Mountain View?”  Do I have time for lunch?
“Your meeting is in 2 hours. With current traffic, driving time on the 101 is about 40 minutes.”
“Is my car ready? What did I get this time?”
“You can have a Prius right now, or if you wait 10 minutes while they prep it, a Fusion hybrid, which do you want?”
“Put me in the Fusion, Rosie.  Let’s have XM Classic Vinyl on the radio.”
“Done. You’re checked in, the car is on the left aisle, about halfway down on the right. The seats and mirrors are set for you, but there’s no power recline, you’ll need to adjust that when you get in.”
“Thanks, Rosie. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
  • Calendar, location, real-time traffic access, and intelligence to answer, “do I have time.”
  • Real-time interaction with rental agency information
  • Digital personal assistant interaction with car telematics and settings, using John’s preferences.

There is very little in this scenario that is not possible right now. The “extra set of eyes” camera is needed for recognition of things and people without extra effort.  The integration of rights and preferences across many situations has yet to be achieved  The central idea, that we already have access to a lot of useful information, but have to act deliberately and take our attention away from the rest of life to find it, is already there, we are living it every day with smartphones.  

Part of this is our own expectations. It’s been so long that truly personal service has been available, we expect to stop what we’re doing and go do self service.  It’s great that technology has put so much in our hands; it’s just that the digital assistant will help make the next big step, to seamless, automatic provisioning of information and actions.  The personal digital assistant is a practical realization of the benefits of splitting content from presentation, which was one of the key things we got from web 2.0. By combining it with mobility, context, location awareness, and the machine recognition of things and people, there’s a really good chance we’ll all get very spoiled, very quickly.

The introduction by Apple of the improved version of their early iteration of the DPA, Siri, makes this an especially good time to elevate this discussion, and begin thinking about business opportunities--and threats--it suggests.  Siri is cool. But it represents perhaps 30% of what the truly powerful digital assistant will be, as Rosie demonstrated.  

If you haven’t seen Siri yet, here is an excellent demo:

Apple's Siri demo

Although you’re seeing a lot of coverage, Siri is by no means the only player in the DPA game.  Take a look at this report:

Search Engine Land: Alternatives to Siri

As I’ve said, I think this idea has the potential to have a major disruptive influence, and possibly represent a shift in the order and market power of the big tech companies. Who will be the big players? Who is most likely to win?  That report is coming soon.


  1. Nice article Don - agree that it has the power to be disruptive - big challenge is to adapt personal behavior long enough to adopt to the technology - most current smartphone features are not used by more than 99% of purchasers (and a lot less than that for execs...!)

  2. Geoff, I think one of the reasons so many smartphone features are unused is the fact that they have to be intrusive to give you the information or service you want. You have to stop what you're doing, launch the app, interact with it, and return to your business afterward. I think of the digital assistant essentially as a new form of user interface that breaks those barriers. By using natural language, and learning your preferences through experience rather than a complex data entry process, the digital assistant could make using technology dramatically easier and more intuitive, leading widespread adoption once it's fully realized. The best analogy I can think of it the way windowing operating systems and the mouse replaced the old command line-based way of interacting with computers. As a general rule of thumb, consumer uptake follows ease of use.