Finally: Real virtual assistants

Saturday, December 15th 2012. | Software News

Apple’s Siri feature is supposed to be a “virtual personal assistant,” and one that’s “proactive” and “intelligent.”

The truth is that Siri is none of those things.

Siri is a user interface that, mostly, makes it fun and easy to do things like get directions, find out information, set timers and make restaurant reservations.

Siri has impressive human-like voice interaction. You talk in regular language, and Siri responds in natural-sounding language, even appearing to chit-chat and crack jokes with you. It’s cool, but ultimately it’s just a parlor trick.

Google Voice Search, which accesses the awesome Google Knowledge Graph, is another impressive user interface that’s typically and incorrectly labeled a virtual personal assistant.

Real personal assistants don’t just do what they’re told or answer the questions they’re asked. They intelligently anticipate potential issues and prevent things from falling through the cracks. A real personal assistant is not a tool, but an ally.

Real personal assistants pay attention to what’s important. They proactively bring things to your attention that would otherwise go unnoticed. They plan and prioritize.

Siri can reschedule your dentist appointment, but only if you discover that you need to change it and remember to ask Siri to do it.

A real personal assistant monitors your calendar, notices that your dentist appointment overlaps with your lunch meeting, brings that fact to your attention and asks which of the two you’d like to reschedule.

Siri can make things easier. But a personal assistant can save you from failure or embarrassment.

Apple’s website says Siri helps you do everyday tasks. “All you have to do is ask.” And that’s the core reason Siri isn’t a virtual assistant: You have to ask.

Siri isn’t a personal assistant because Siri can’t predict what’s important to you and proactively bring it to your attention. It can’t make judgment calls or do problem-solving on your behalf.

Suddenly, however, there’s a new generation of free mobile apps that can do all this.

I call them “real virtual assistants” (an admittedly oxymoronic — or maybe just moronic — label).

“Real virtual assistants” are revolutionary. They threaten to overturn the tyranny of question-asking, and instead give you relevant answers when you never even thought of the question.

Just like a real personal assistant.

Three real virtual assistants


A free new iOS app called EasilyDo is marketed as an intelligent to-do list.

You connect the app to sources of personal data that include Facebook, your iOS Address Book, package-tracking services and more.

EasilyDo populates your to-do list with things that might otherwise escape your attention. It notices on Facebook that one of your friends got a promotion and suggests that you send congratulations. It tells you to pick up a package that will arrive later today.

The app will pop up an alert while you’re in a meeting, telling you that you’ve got to leave now if you want to be on time for the next meeting. If you’re going to be late, tap a button and it will inform your fellow meeting attendees.

EasilyDo can remind you to pay your bills, file your business receipts and even place calls for you. (If you’re joining a conference call, it will even dial the access code.)

Google Now

The most powerful and impressive virtual assistant is Google’s free Google Now. It’s impressive because it goes out and finds sources of data that you never even knew existed. You don’t have to explicitly connect it to this social network or that data service.

Google Now proactively tosses up relevant information in the form of “cards” based on what it learns about you over time. It will give you weather, traffic and sports updates, information about upcoming appointments, incoming package alerts, birthday reminders, event reminders and more, right when you most need that information.

If you’re at a bus stop or train station, it will alert you to the next arrivals.

Recently, Google Now was updated to include the ability to access your Gmail account and grab airline boarding passes that can be scanned at the gate for easy boarding.

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