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Wanted: A world where virtual assistants help (without being asked)

Mike Elgan | Aug. 21, 2017
Only two virtual assistants – those from Google and Facebook – can eavesdrop on your conversations and chime in with helpful suggestions. We need a lot more of that, even in the office.

The latest news is that M Suggestions also offers music suggestions via Spotify when you're talking about music.

M Suggestions "eavesdrops" on the chat (it's all text, so it's not technically "listening"). However, credible reports by Bloomberg earlier this month indicate Facebook is working on at least two Amazon Echo-like virtual assistant appliance products that would presumably run Facebook M Suggestions. In that case, it could actually listen to conversations, then interject with spoken computer voice. (This, of course, is conjecture on top of rumor. But it's easy to imagine a Facebook home appliance you talk through, where you say: "Call Steve," to which the device answers: "OK, calling Steve. Don't forget to wish Steve a happy birthday!")

One rumored version of a Facebook appliance has a screen, which could display suggestions quietly while you talk via audio or video.

As a social-networking company, Facebook focuses both the larger M experiment, and also M Suggestions, on greasing the wheels of social interaction. It's not about knowledge or productivity, but communication.


Three suggestions for suggestion A.I.

Amazon now makes several versions of its Echo line of virtual assistant appliances. Google's Home appliance now functions as a telephone. Apple's HomePad appliance ships in December. Facebook is rumored to be working on at least two such appliances.

By the end of the year, virtual assistant appliances will be without question a "mainstream" product category.

Now we need three changes.

First, we need business versions of these appliances that replace office telephones, an idea I detailed in May.

Second, we need "suggestions" to be part of these devices. That would mean they would listen not just for the trigger "keywords," but would listen all the time to everything, and chime in opportunistically with suggestions. For the business appliances, these should appear silently on screen, and have access to calendar, contacts and other user data. They should also have good APIs so corporate application data could be accessed as well.

And third, "suggestion" A.I. needs to be part of our smartphone virtual assistants as well. Wireless earbuds should be the hardware interface for constant interaction with virtual assistants that, yes, offer suggestions based on our contexts and conversations.

I know, I know. Privacy. But privacy concerns shouldn't be a deal-breaker. We should demand from the creators of these "suggestion"-capable A.I. virtual assistant strong assurances of data privacy. That's both possible and necessary.

The benefits of A.I. "suggestions" will enhance everything about our lives, including our business interactions.

Google and Facebook are on the right track. We just need a lot more of it.


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