Virtual voice-controlled assistants such as Siri, Cortana and Google Now are magical. You can say things such as “Will I need an umbrella in Dallas this weekend?” or “What flights are overhead?”—or even jokey things like “Is Santa Claus real?” Each time, you get an accurate (or witty) answer.
Behind the scenes, though, all their responses were scripted in advance by writers and programmers. (In fact, Apple employs a team of comedy writers exclusively for drafting Siri's wisecracks.) Their underlying software is still, in essence, a passel of if/then statements.
Soon, though, your voice assistant will be much, much smarter. After leaving Apple, three of Siri's creators—Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham—started a company called Viv Labs.
Whereas a Siri or a Cortana might know how to handle requests about weather, sports and about 20 other areas, Viv's knowledge and vocabulary will be extensible and unlimited. They will tap into the databases of thousands of online services—stores, flight-booking sites, car-sharing services, flight trackers, restaurants, florists, dating sites—and understand how everything all fits together.
“You can ask Siri, ‘Where does my sister live?’ and ‘What's the weather in Boston?’” Cheyer explained to me, “but you can't say, ‘What's the weather where my sister lives?’ because that integration hasn't been written by a human. But Viv will weave things together.”
Viv will also learn a huge portfolio about you—your preferences, credit-card numbers, addresses, and so on (with your permission, of course). As a result, Viv can answer queries such as “Book me an appointment with a French-speaking optometrist whose office is on my way home from work,” “Find me a good place to go take my kids to the Caribbean in the last week of February,” and “I want to pick up a great bottle of wine on the way to my brother's house—something that goes well with lasagna.”
In that last example, Viv consults one Web service that knows the inventory of the wine in various stores, one that plots the route to your brother's home and one that knows the ingredients of lasagna. And in the case of the Caribbean trip, Viv can suggest a resort package for you, which you can book on the spot—no searching required.
It would be convenient for the consumer. And a boon for Viv. Every time that you confirm one of Viv's proposed purchases, the corresponding service (say, Uber, Hotels.com or Orbitz) will pay Viv a cut.
Will this system level the playing field for smaller companies—that Francophone optometrist—or further cement the dominance of the world's Amazons and Ubers? Will Viv's product selections be the final nail in the coffin of browsing and serendipity?
And just how smart will Viv be? When you book a flight, will it take into account how bad traffic will be on your way to the airport that time of day? Will it know that a layover at Chicago's O'Hare airport during the holidays is a fate worse than death?
And what about jobs? What happens to all the travel agents, florists and sommeliers that AI assistants such as Viv will displace?
“Historically the economy adapts,” Kittlaus replies. Most of the U.S. population used to work on farms—now it's a tiny minority. “It's only when people's skills can't keep up with the rate of change that you run into trouble.”
The user interface isn't done yet, so the company hasn't released pictures or videos. But Viv works well, even now. Kittlaus demoed Viv with a bunch of commands (for example: “Send my mom a dozen roses” and “Book me two first-class seats on the first flight from SFO to JFK, returning Tuesday”). Each time, Viv presented a list of options, ranked by price or rating; Kittlaus could execute the transaction with one more tap.
Viv is a year away from public release. But Viv's competitors aren't sitting still; in the past few months Microsoft, Google and Apple all announced upgrades to the intelligence of their existing voice assistants. And SoundHound's Hound is still in beta but already beating out the big dogs in complex voice searches and ultraspecific transaction requests. Although they don't quite approach the sophistication and integration of Viv's smarts, the direction these voice apps are taking is already clear: they're growing smarter, faster and more disruptive every day.