Advent at Grakn Labs: Virtual Assistants

#GraknLovesTech: 14th December 2016

Precy Kwan
Dec 14, 2016 · 5 min read
Source: Number 14, Thomas Quine under CC02; photo has been cropped for this article

Here at Grakn Labs we love technology. So much so, that, this month, we’ve decided to share our favourite technology moments from 2016. Each weekday during December, we will open a window on our virtual advent calendar, and peek inside to recall some of the greatest innovation or news that the past year has brought us.

Please recommend and share with hashtag #GraknLovesTech if you enjoy our posts. And if you have any favourite links you’d like us share, just leave us a comment or tweet us @graknlabs!

Virtual assistants have come a long way since the days when it meant outsourcing your admin needs over the internet to a nameless/faceless anybody. Now, with maturing NLP and speech recognition technology embedded into a myriad of mobile, search and other platforms the landscape change entirely. When we think of virtual assistants here at Grakn Labs, we mean those of the AI varietal.

In 2016, the race is really heating up with many contenders. Of course, many of these are from the usual suspects, like Samsung, Google and Amazon. But there are also important startup challengers, like X.ai. One certain thing is that virtual assistants are now sufficiently cheap and ubiquitous (possibly even coming pre-installed on our devices) that they are becoming truly integrated into the daily fabric of our lives.

  1. Alexa, get me some toilet paper!
Alexa: you’re like a bad child!

Here in the UK, Amazon finally launched Echo, which is essentially the “speaker” to its AI assistant, Alexa. Personally, the most obvious difference between the two versions seems to be a “British” accent versus an American one. It is the next step in Amazon’s grand ambition of reducing friction for our purchases and becoming more omnipresent in our lives regardless of where we reside.

From what we have seen, there is still some ways to go before Alexa/Echo will work as smoothly as we would like for us use it as a ‘real’ general-purpose assistant. Also, personally, I’m not sure if I want to trust Alexa with my purchasing decisions: I quite enjoy the analysis paralysis associated with the abundance of choice on Amazon. However, the convenience factor is undeniable.

That being said, we’ve heard some good feedback in terms of how easy the emerging developer environment is for newbies to start developing with Alexa. Amazon is really trying to push Alexa as a development platform and has even created a $100M Alexa fund to fund different projects. So for a developer who wants to dip their toe into the whole NLP and speech recognition thing, it could be a fun side project.

2. Google launches its own digital assistant, the (creatively named) Assistant

Virtual Assistant Showdown: Siri versus Google Assistant

This past May, at its I/O conference, Google finally “caught up” with the other tech giants, like Apple, Amazon et al., and debuted its own version of the virtual assistant. However, it would be remiss to say that Google is late to the game, since it has already covered a lot of the granular functionality that you would expect from a Siri or Cortana. For all the Android users out there, we all know that Google Now is already pretty clever — it pulls out information about our travel plans, where we work and what our interests are. Google also already has a pretty good voice interface, allowing you to search and execute commands on your phone via the ‘Ok Google’ prompt. The big difference now is that Assistant is supposed to provide a platform that allows for more of a two way conversation. If you’re using Google’s IM platform Allo, you can also text your way into a conversation with Assistant.

Not surprisingly, the results are pretty compelling, as you can see in the video above. Assistant apparently comes with more functionality pre-installed with the Pixel handset than what is available on Allo. Altogether, I’d say that Google is my pick for top “general” virtual assistant so far.

3. Move over Siri, a younger model is in town

Viv — apparently it’s all about the “paradigm”

Once again Siri is under some serious pressure from its siblings. Samsung announced their acquisition of Viv in October 2016. From the same guys who brought you Siri, Viv is an conversational interface platform, which they envision will become ‘the conversational interface to everything’. Along with acquisition, there are plans in the works to create a developer environment for Viv, similar to the one for Alexa.

From the demo video, it seems to handle complex queries quite well (much like Grakn!). But we’re not that surprised since in our experience, graph-based semantic search tends to really shine when presented with a set of complicated parameters. Nonetheless, it appears to be a strong contender in the virtual assistant race — but it is too still too soon to tell. We’ll see whether the developer community rallies behind the platform to make some standout extensions/applications so as to harness the conversational interface. Also, obviously Samsung is going to package Viv with its next “explosive” Galaxy 8 release. We are waiting with baited breathe in the upcoming months to see how it performs!

4. Hey Amy!

On our Christmas wishlist: Amy

Due to his former life as a large-scale optimisation guy, our founder is constantly in a frenzy to optimise his emails, schedule, productivity etc. The one woman that he has been waiting for all his life is Amy (he’s still on the waitlist for the free version as of the publication date).

X.ai is one high profile startup pretender to the virtual assistant throne with their AI assistant Amy, named after the founder’s former personal assistant (though after a bit of a hoopla they now have a guy version named Andrew). 2016 is a big year for them: they have moved out of beta, recently raised a healthy Series B of $23M and are offering Amy to a growing user-base for the very reasonable price of $39 per month. So without breaking the bank, you too can have Amy or Andrew schedule all of your meetings.

Here at the office, we are definitely cheering for X.ai! We share a lot of their convictions pertaining to ‘anti-lean startups’ for deep tech companies (like AI startups) as well as their focus on creating domain-specific vertical AI. (We can wax poetic about this for millennia so we’ll save that for a rainy day of which we see very few in the UK).

So that wraps up our mini-review on what went on in 2016 with AI-assisted virtual assistants. The technology is maturing quickly and we’re eager to see what it brings in 2017. We leave you with a vintage snippet from Ellen to show you how far Siri has come in four years!

GRAKN.AI is an open-source knowledge graph data platform that brings knowledge ontologies and transactional data together to enable highly intelligent querying of data. Querying is performed through Graql, a declarative, knowledge-oriented graph query language for retrieving explicitly stored and implicitly derived information, and for performing graph analytics and automated reasoning. Grakn and Graql will help you effectively manage and harness large-scale graph data by allowing you to model it expressively, migrate it efficiently, and to draw insightful knowledge from your deep information network.

Find out more about Grakn Labs from our website!

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