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We need virtual assistants that talk to each other

Mike Elgan | June 12, 2017
'Siri, Google Assistant, Cortana and Alexa — figure out a solution and get back to me.'

Virtual Assistant

Everybody talks about (and often to) the Big Four virtual assistants — Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant. But many other companies are working on virtual assistants, too.

Huawei is working on a virtual assistant for the Chinese market.

Samsung offers Bixby on its Galaxy S8 or S8+ smartphones.

Voice recognition giant Nuance offers an enterprise ready virtual assistant called Nina, which specializes in knowing the limits of A.I. and kicking queries over to a team of human assistants when necessary. Nuance this month announced a Nina "skill" on Amazon's Alexa platform.

European telecom Orange offers a virtual assistant called Djingo. A french startup is building an meeting scheduling virtual assistant called Julie Desk. And noHold makes a highly customizable virtual assistant called Albert.

There are dozens of others.

The problem with choice in voice-based virtual assistants is that you have to choose one and stick with it. And you shouldn't have to.


The memorize-the-magic-words option

"You should be able to tell Alexa, 'Ask Siri'," Amazon senior vice president of devices, David Limp, said at a conference this week.

Limp's sketchy vision for how virtual assistants should work together is wrong in three ways.

First, he imagines the user telling one all-purpose virtual assistant to "ask" another specific all-purpose virtual assistant. In this imagining, Apple would create a Siri "skill" and become an adjunct to the Alexa platform, something that's inconceivable. Apple maintains Siri to provide an interface feature to Apple hardware like iPhones, iPads, Apple TV and Macs -- not to provide benefits to Amazon Echo users. Siri will never be an Alexa "skill."

Second, this is how "skills" work on Alexa, and it's fatally flawed. In order to use "skills," the user has to specify the service, then say the magic words that enable that "skill" to produce the desired result. Alexa has thousands of skills. But Amazon is relying on users to somehow find skills and memorize their commands. This is why most "skills" are barely used at all.

Third, the only successful models for the future of virtual assistants that work together is either branding awareness (an assistant functions as part of a wider range of features or another product) or direct subscription payments. Current all-purpose assistants are monetized through hardware sales and advertising revenue.

The idea that virtual assistants of the future will work like Alexa's "skills" is very unlikely.

Limp's scenario is one of several suggesting that virtual assistants need to work together.


The open-source option

Playground Global founder and CEO Andy Rubin founded both Danger and Android, and ran Android for Google for years. Now he's got a billion-dollar startup called Essential that recently announced a line of smartphones and other devices.


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