Virtual Assistants — Where’s the Beef?

This iconic phase came into popular culture as a negative depiction of fast-food burgers that had lots of bread and very little meat. In many ways it is apropos to the Internet today.

Don’t get me wrong. As another iconic phrase applicable to the Internet says, ‘you’ve come a long way, baby.’

Indeed, we have passed through the emergent nerdy, geeky phase, and, generally speaking, are now past the child-like phase. Indicative of this is how many people from the world of passive TV watching — with smartphones, tablets and apps — have migrated to the interactive world of the Internet.

But it now seems we are heading into a mature — “electric” — phase. Like the spread of electrical wiring (think wireless service) and electronic appliances (think Internet of things) this is where the Internet is ubiquitously, yet invisibly integrated into the entirety of our environment. As such it will gradually impact virtually every facet of existence. The consequences of this phase will be a long anticipated cultural paradigm shift.

As with Homer’s Odysseus the siren call of this new cultural terra-firma is in the air beckoning.

For all but the deaf and those wearing earplugs, the rapturous melodies of autonomous systems — self-driving cars, quantified self, smart homes, augmented and virtual reality, and, most importantly, augmented knowledge via virtual assistants — are emerging everywhere. The seductiveness is unmistakable. And, for better or worse, we are all going ashore.

How this new culture will be manifested is far from an idle question. In retrospect, all consequential technological advances manifest cultural results more complicated than anticipated. Invariably, the results are both good and bad, so the only salient issue is the ratio and potency of the bad to good.

For example, the child-like Internet phase brought us social media and global jihadism. It brought unprecedented personalization and endlessly annoying advertising. It also took the scourge of hacking to new depths and established the infrastructure for an ideal surveillance state.

There will be a morning after when the dust from this new phase settles.

There is little we can be certain of at this point in time. Indeed, all I am ever certain of is that I have forgotten more than I know and know I am never smart enough. If mine is a common malady, we will all need help.

Since the coming electric phase will be populated by autonomous systems, we are likely to have more of what Clay Shirky called, “cognitive surplus” — a surplus of intellect, energy, and time. So it seems the crux of our collective fortunes in this phase rests on whether this surplus is enhanced or anesthetized. Said differently, will we use our cognitive surplus to become better critical thinkers and smarter or pure dilettantes and more obsequious drones?

Dilettantism and obsequiousness, of course, is the path of least resistance and thus a default outcome. The counterpoint would claim a historical directionality corresponding to a behavioral change toward greater sophistication, albeit unconscious. An example of this might be how printing led to the Enlightenment. Or, how the introduction of calculators and spreadsheets changed our culture.

Indeed, calculators and spreadsheets effectively eliminated the tedious, error-prone and time-consuming task of doing long-hand mathematics. While long hand math remains a useful skill, what is more useful today is the ability to better conceptualize the math problem at hand, to intuitively grasp the appropriateness of the resulting answer, and to quickly run multiple scenarios. Moreover, they enable those mathematically challenged to be less so.

We are not in Kansas anymore.

A key system in this new Internet phase is virtual assistants (e.g., Siri, Google Now, Cortana, M, Echo and Viv). These voice activated input and output conversational interfaces will progressively replace keyboards and today’s bots. Like Star Trek communicators, we will give them messages to deliver, receive status updates from them, and query them endlessly. Ultimately, as devices fade away into ambient knowledge environments, the virtual assistants will become our most trusted conversational companion.

For the foreseeable future, however, these assistants will not be doing any of these tasks independently. Rather, they will simply route, retrieve, and translate information and knowledge content between us and the services best able to respond (or siloed service you are chained to). Since routing and retrieval are straightforward functions, the Achilles-heel for these assistant systems will be the quality of the services with which they interact.

In other words, the sine qua non of what happens — our imminent cultural paradigm shift — may depend on third-party databases providing the most reliable content and answers possible to our queries. In this respect our current options — search engines, crowdsourcing, expert systems — are insufficient and do not bode well.

We are all strangers in a strange land.

With respect to quality of life need-to-know issues — the 911 parts of our lives — no one using a virtual assistant needs misleading, erroneous, out-of-date, or mediocre responses to their queries. To a great extent this is what is holding back mainstream acceptance of these services.

So, for virtual assistants to access and deliver a superior knowledge content service, there needs to be databases of reliable content in all areas important to daily quality of life issues. Then, like any other consequential content area (e.g., commerce, entertainment, social) these need to be aggregated. (Full disclosure, this is what my company provides.)

Doing this aggregating will present a significant challenge. A great many content resources will be disintermediated and lots of sacred cows killed. Undoubtedly, hucksters and ideologues will offer competing databases.

Given the long term implications of these augmented knowledge systems to the coming cultural paradigm shift, pseudo-consumer watchdogs and special interest organizations will compete for content database primacy on a scale never before witnessed. It will be an epic struggle for hearts and minds.

Collectively, in the end, we will all need to discern whether there is any beef in these virtual assistants. That is, whether our unconscious behavior was changed such that we will be cognitively enhanced or anesthetized.

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In any case, may you live long and prosper.

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