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2018 In Review: 10 Novel AI Apps

The last year saw an explosion of artificial intelligence consumer products, from virtual assistants to image editors to AI mini-games. Synced has selected 10 AI apps that we believe brought a novel approach to tech or task in 2018.

Google Duplex — Is it real or is it creepy?

There was a “wow moment” at the Google I/O this year when CEO Sundar Pichai introduced Google Duplex. The advanced conversational AI system can call restaurants for reservations, schedule appointments for example at a hair salon, or book flights and hotels with a human travel agent. The highly nuanced AI voice technology occasionally interrupts or deliberately pauses in conversations, making it so humanlike that Alphabet Chairman and Turing Prize Award John Hennessy said it passes the Turing test in limited conditions. Duplex is currently available on Pixel phones.

Lookout — Compassionate technology

Google again leveraged the strength of AI for Lookout, a mobile application designed to support people with visual impairments. The smartphone app can real-time narrate the immediate environment, audibly identifying for example the people, objects, scenes, and text it perceives. The app can switch between “Home”, “Work” and “Play” modes to enable its algorithms to focus on environmentally relevant elements. Lookout is currently available on Pixel phones.

Microsoft Pix — Awesome new business card feature

The Microsoft Pix smart camera app this year introduced a new business card feature which provides a simple, one-step method for adding a contact not only to an iPhone address book but also to a LinkedIn account. Users point their smartphone at a contact’s business card and Microsoft Pix automatically detects the card and its information fields to collect relevant data and take further action.

Caihua Xiaoge — Quick Draw! in China

Google has been exploring ways to rebuild its presence in the Chinese market, and a successful move in 2018 was releasing the AI mini-game “Caihua Xiaoge” on social networking app WeChat. The game is a Mandarin version of Google’s 2016 AI experiment Quick Draw!, which uses a neural network to predict what users are drawing on their screens — for example a tree or a dog — from the first few lines that they sketch. The app improves as it learns from each drawing.

Restoring old photos — A trip down memory lane

Tencent developed an AI-powered technique that can restore old, faded, torn, monochrome photographs. Trained with millions of stock pictures, the AI algorithms learn to understand different objects in the image, such as “sky”, “grass”, “building”, “face”, etc, and match these with correct colours. The algorithms were rolled out early this year on WeChat as a built-in mini-app, and won widespread praise from the elderly for restoring cherished memories.

iQiyi — Don’t “barrage” my idol’s face!

A popular term among Asian netizens, a “barrage” involves the onscreen comments stream in the lower frame of a video. Users can enter these comments in different sizes, fonts, and colors. However, if a video goes viral and receives an overwhelming volume of comments, the “barrage” of text can obscure video subjects’ faces. Baidu’s iQiyi app uses an AI algorithm based on Google object detection model DeepLabv3 to detect and separate video subjects from their backgrounds, and display barrages in the space between them. The feature has been integrated into iQiyi’s homemade reality shows. The app is available on the App Store and Google Play.

Youper — Best emotional assistant?

No one doubts the popularity of Youper — the new emotional health assistant that boasts a 4.9 rating in the iOS App Store and a 4.8 on Google Play. A sort of therapist in your pocket, Youper is designed to detect and address users’ anxiety, depression and social anxiety symptoms through conversations. It’s also able to track moods over time, and learns to offer more personalized services based on its interactions. Download the app at the App Store or Google Play.

Voicera — AI takes meeting notes

Voicera’s AI-powered Enterprise Virtual Assistant “Eva” is a smartphone-based stenographer that can automatically detect and mark a conference call’s important moments and extract highlights from the call. It will listen for phrases and terms that are indicative of a critical moment, and note this information as a meeting highlight for users. Voicera is a California-based startup that has raised a total of US$20 million from big names such as Microsoft Ventures, GV (formerly Google Ventures), Cisco Ventures, and Salesforce Ventures. Download the app at the App Store and Google Play.

Versa — Photoshop + Instagram

Each year the iOS App Store announces a “Great Apps Made in Greater China” list to recognize innovation and exceptional designs from Chinese developers. This year, Tencent-backed Chinese startup Versa was honoured for their flagship photo & video editing app “Makalong Wantu (马卡龙玩图)”. The app features a number of novel features, such as “erasing background strangers from an image” and “replacing and modifying the background of a video.” Young Chinese netizens love the simple user interface and combined fortes of photoshop and instagram. Download it at the App Store.

Octi (upcoming) — Magic is real

Los Angeles-based startup Octi recently secured US$7.5 million in funding to advance its flagship augmented reality and AI app. Synced spotted the company at this year’s CVPR, where engineers demonstrated their human mapping and pose estimation techniques, which apply 3D contextual video effects such as surrealist distortions, hovering rainbows and neon auras. The novelty factor could take this far as a fun social networking app.

Journalist: Tony Peng | Editor: Michael Sarazen

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