When Siri debuted in 2011, she was groundbreaking. Suddenly, each shiny new iPhone came with a virtual assistant, there to answer questions, take orders or just chat.
Siri's limitations, however, were quickly revealed. While she could respond to direct one sentence requests (Call Sarah's home phone) or answer simple questions (What time is it in California?), even seemingly straightforward demands (Locate the nearest Pinkberry) tripped her up. Soon, she became most useful as party fodder, passed around so guests could laugh at her programmed answers to philosophical questions.
“I’m extremely proud of Siri and the impact it’s had on the world, but in many ways it could have been more,” Adam Cheyer, one of the co-founders of Siri told Wired. “Now I want to do something bigger than mobile, bigger than consumer, bigger than desktop or enterprise. I want to do something that could fundamentally change the way software is built.”
In an attempt to do this Cheyer and fellow Siri co-founder Dag Kittlaus, along with Chris Brigham (an early hire for the Siri team), are developing a new digital assistant that can handle complicated requests, using a crowdsourced approach. Instead of developing the system inside Apple, however, the group has broken out on its own to found the startup Viv Labs.
As hinted above, the central difference between Siri and Viv Labs' AI system (appropriately named Viv) is that Siri's responses are pre-programmed, while Viv is designed to learn as it goes, collecting an ever-expanding database of knowledge and abilities. The more people use Viv, the smarter it gets. (It's kind of like the Waze of personal-assistant apps.)
Wired reported that Viv can already tackle complex requests, ones that would stump both Siri and Google Now (Google's artificial intelligence, or AI, system): "You can [ask Google Now], ‘What is the population?’ of a city and it’ll bring up a chart and answer," Kittlaus told the outlet. "But you cannot say, 'What is the population of the city where Abraham Lincoln was born?'"
The problem, Wired reported, is that while Siri and other AI systems can answer each individual component of the above question, they lack the sophistication to interpret their combined meaning. For example, Siri can't respond to the request "Give me a flight to Dallas with a seat that Shaq could fit in." Viv can, however, by breaking apart the sentence into key words and accessing outside sites for information on each component -- in this case flights to Dallas (Kayak), available seats (SeatGuru) and Shaq's dimensions (NBA guide).
Because Viv will not have a preexisting user base (unlike Siri and Google Now), it will be an open system, accessible as a plug-in solution to a large variety of companies and, the founders hope, available on a variety of devices. "Let me just cut through all the usual founder bullshit,” told Kittlaus Wired. “What we’re really after is ubiquity. We want this to be everywhere, and we’re going to consider all paths along those lines.” There is no word on when it will officially launch.
This is all cool, of course, but for now its Viv remains an untested possibility, one that will have to contend with stiff competition as the AI space continues to heat up (Google Microsoft, and Apple are all reportedly working on improving their AI assistants).
Still, it’s interesting to get a glimpse of how an actually intelligent AI system (sorry, Siri) would work.