Siri, Viv And The Branding Potential For AI Assistants

Apple’s revelations Monday about the upgrades to its “intelligent personal assistant” — aka Siri — were met with generally good vibes, but there may be something even more exciting coming from the world of machine intelligence.

Consumers and developers alike have been frustrated by Siri’s stagnation since it rolled out on iOS 5 in late 2011— particularly its inability to do much more than respond to very simple questions  (as cleverly as its too-frequent evasions or ignorance might be masked). Now that Siri has been opened up to third-party developers, users will be able to perform tasks such as summon an Uber or track a jog in the park on Under Armour’s MapMyRun app without any digital keyboarding. It also will be available on the next version of Mac OS X.

AI’s main potential for brands and services is that it can supplement the human-to-human conversations that are so vital to maintaining relationships. And a next generation of voice-enabled AI technology out of Viv Labs is what really has the developer community buzzing.

Viv Labs CEO Dag Kittlaus, who was also CEO of the team that created Siri at SRI International Artificial Intelligence Center in the first place, offered the first public demonstration of Viv in action during a 11-minute presentation of what he calls “conversational commerce” at TechCrunch’s Disrupt NY conference last month.

Rather than the hard-coded voice-recognitions apps now in the marketplace, Viv is  “a dynamic program that in 10 milliseconds writes itself,” he said. An illustration: Ask Viv if it was raining in Seattle three Thursdays ago, and it will write a program to answer that multifaceted question lickety-split.

But that’s just the surface. “If Viv operates as promised — admittedly a big ‘if’ — brands will be able to reach customers in a method entirely organic and instant in nature,” says Jeff Piazza, co-founder and UX director at Behavior Design, a Manhattan-based agency that focuses on user experience, strategy and design. “This truly doesn't exist today, despite Amazon Echo's admirable attempts, and integration with existing services will be key to speed that adaption.”

Say you’re planning a family vacation for Florida to visit your parents, Piazza offers as an example. The system should already know how many people you are traveling with, as well as such details as your preferences for airline, travel times and departure and arrival airports.

“It's a conservation of energy and an increase in efficiency. So that the decisions that I'm making are more about detailed preferences, such as where I'm going to sit,” Piazza says. 

Eliminating seven or eight of the dozen other decisions that are now required on a Web form obviously makes for a much better customer experience. “And there’s also the ability to feel like they know you. Or to suggest new things, which is really important to retain and drive the relationship between the user and that service,” Piazza points out.

Machine-learning technology also offers promise for internal problem solving. Say, for example, you’re in an airline marketer in a meeting and someone brings up the number of complaints passengers have been making about lost luggage. Is it really that bad? Where exactly is it happening? Rather than say you’ll have IT query the database when you get back to your desk and wait for the report, you’ll be able to make an on-the-fly query on your mobile device.  

“Immediacy is really where the value is,” Piazza says. “The fact that we're shortening the time to process information and we’re becoming better at asking the right questions to drive insight.”

AI technology, much like virtual reality, is very much in its infancy. Piazza, in fact, likens it to the early-to-mid ’90s when everybody was just beginning to get their heads around what the newfangled World Wide Web might mean to marketers. And, as with any new technology, if Viv is going to thrive beyond early adopters, the key driver will be the quality of the content it delivers. If Viv’s responses to consumers prove to be "empathetic" — and they accurately represent the ideals and values that the service using it embody — it will be a success in “creating great brand affinity,” Piazza feels.

“It's not an end to the means, but it's a way of getting there,” he says. “It gives me time. That's the value.”


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