The new AI virtual assistant Viv gets what you're saying

Viv, endowed with the ability to hear what you say and act on it, is set to disrupt search and a whole lot more. Should enterprises take notice? Also in Searchlight: U.S. military eyes AI; is Facebook liberal?

Get ready: Four years in the making, Viv, Siri's cousin, is here -- and those who know her say she is one of a kind.

At Disrupt NYC this week, Siri creators Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer offered convincing evidence that their new AI virtual assistant could disrupt commerce as we know it. Through the power of her advanced natural language processing skills, Viv is able to understand complex, layered commands. Want to send flowers to a friend, an e-commerce transaction which typically requires the use of more than one app or service to execute? Viv can handle it seamlessly, diving into your contacts for your friend's address, connecting to your payment app to access your credit card information, showing you the offerings at various florists, and taking care of the purchase once you've made up your mind. All this is accomplished through what Viv's makers call conversational commerce: If you can talk, it can happen. Unlike similar systems such as Amazon Echo or Google Now, which resort to a Web search when they encounter requests they don't know how to execute, Viv generates her own code to find a solution.

But Viv's main claim to a one-of-a-kind fame? The new AI virtual assistant from Kittlaus and Cheyer "personifies an open system," said John Wargo, principal analyst at Forrester. In distinction to Echo or Siri, Viv is a so-called global AI whose capabilities can be augmented by developers -- no holds barred.

While Amazon's developers also constantly write new services for the Echo system, for example, "there's a special way you have to word things for it to use developer-added capabilities," Wargo explained, adding that he hasn't seen any other systems take Viv's open approach.

Nature vs. nurture

The powerful alliance of Viv's voice recognition, data analysis and code generation, combined with the system's lack of rigidity, potentially offers companies more opportunities to integrate services into their consumers' lives, according to the industry analysts I spoke with. But that potentially is a big if, they cautioned. Viv's ability to deliver on her makers' promises will come down to the businesses and developers themselves: They will need to actually experiment on the platform and build on it in order for Viv to be an attractive option for consumers and businesses. It's the old chicken-and-egg question, a nature vs. nurture story. The goods are there. Will the AI virtual assistant find an environment that allows her to thrive?  

Siri 2.0?

Viv is actually more closely related to the original version of Siri than to the current version of Siri. According to a report by The Washington Post, when Siri's makers rolled the platform out as an independent app six years ago, it could do everything Viv can do now, such as purchasing goods without turning to search pages or forcing the user to open or download a separate app. Dag Kittlaus, Siri's co-founder, knocked on the doors of 42 tech companies, asking for their permission to connect to their pools of data. Once Apple took the helm, however, those alliances were jettisoned and Siri became the "clever AI chatbot" that she is today.

"There was a time with Echo where a lot of people had never heard of it, and now my mom has one," said Jared Johnson, mobile strategist at Solstice Mobile. "Over time, Viv could gain more market share, more awareness, and then there's going to be more ROI, more impetus to invest in and connect to Viv," Johnson said.

Instead of spending several months investing in large initiatives around Viv, however, businesses should develop some experiences on Viv a little at a time, in week- or month-long stretches, Johnson said. Iterate based on user feedback, pivoting back or pressing on based on that feedback. "It's more about investing in your experimentation methodology," he said. The aim is to test use cases for your business, not confirm the AI assistant's prowess.

"Just because Viv is more powerful [than its counterparts] doesn't mean it's going to give a better customer experience ultimately, because what you need to take into account is what people want to get from Viv," he added.

AI services start with use cases

Once businesses have figured out those top user requirements, they will then be able to build the services that allow Viv to interact with their back-end systems and access customer and inventory data in real time, in ways that will benefit the business -- as well as the AI service.

"Unless Viv has access to that data, it really can't do anything cool," Johnson said. Enterprises that have invested in the AI technologies and already have services built around those systems, in particular, will have a leg up when and if Viv does gain ground. But at this point all enterprises should be getting ready for AI virtual assistant and her counterparts, he said.

Wargo agreed. "We've reached a point where the mobile device is starting to be able to assemble experiences for you from multiple places -- you just have to initiate it," he said, pointing to Google Now's ability to alert you to an accident miles ahead, even with the navigation tool in your Android device turned off. This ability to decide things in advance is something users have now come to expect from their mobile devices; Viv is a logical next step in this shift, with those experiences stitched together automatically for the user, he added.

As for internal uses ...

That said, Wargo doesn't necessarily see enterprises working with Viv for internal projects in the near term.

"It's such a big investment for organizations to build this for their internal employees, and I'm not actually sure they will, unless whatever they build would work for consumers and employees," Wargo said, adding that because employees usually work with confidential company data, it would be less efficient to invest in Viv internally.

He advised businesses to start experimenting with customer experiences around Viv, and once they have built the infrastructure and capabilities around the technology, then looking into helping employees.

"Those same employees are already going to be using things like Viv in their day-to-day life, and they're going to start demanding it," Wargo said, eventually.

CIO news roundup for week of May 9

Viv's AI prowess was a big hit this week, but there were other technology news that grabbed headlines:

  • AI is on the mind. On the mind of the U.S. Secretary of Defense, to be exact. Ashton B. Carton made his fourth trip to Silicon Valley since becoming Defense Secretary to talk about the American military's interest in using AI to get a leg up on competitors China and Russia. The idea of "smart weapons," however, has raised concerns about the difficulty of drawing the line between the defensive and offensive uses of this technology.
  • Is Facebook left-leaning? Is Bill Gates rich? Former Facebook contractors told Gizmodo that they were routinely told to suppress news stories of interest to conservative readers from the social network's "Trending" news feed -- even though those stories were organically trending among Facebook's users. Facebook begs to differ, insisting that its news curation is unbiased. A Republican-led Senate committee sent the company a letter saying it plans to investigate the matter.
  • A  new iOS app called Gboard from Google plans to minimize that hassle of juggling between text conversations and search engines by putting Google's search capabilities right into your mobile device's keyboard. This means you can search for information like weather data, flight times and restaurant listings right from your keyboard, without leaving your text conversation.
  • Docker is leading the pack of DevOps tools, according to a recent survey by cloud management firm RightScale. The survey, which polled 1,060 IT professionals, found that 38% of enterprises have plans to use Docker, followed by Chef at 20% and Puppet at 19%.

Check out our previous Searchlight roundups on IBM's quantum computing platform and Microsoft's investment in blockchain.

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