Smarter than Siri: Viv promises a truly intelligent assistant

AI's promise has been dangled for decades, but a startup founded by the creators of Siri may be poised to finally deliver

A stealth startup headed by the same team that created Siri drew back the curtains this week and revealed its ambitious vision for an artificial intelligence assistant that's as natural to access as electricity, capable of learning without human input, and in constant communication with what the founders of Viv Labs are calling a "global brain."

As explained in an in-depth Wired report, "Viv's founders don't see it as just one product tied to a hardware manufacturer. They see it as a service that can be licensed. They imagine that everyone from TV manufacturers and car companies to app developers will want to incorporate Viv's AI, just as PC manufacturers once clamored to boast of their Intel microprocessors."

It's a dizzying -- and potentially multi-billion-dollar -- prospect. But the tantalizing promise of AI has long dangled out of reach. CITEworld's Nancy Gohring notes that Microsoft talked about a very similar vision years ago: "The idea was to use machine learning and natural learning to let people make requests in a normal, conversational language. Microsoft also wanted to be able to tap into a wide source of data to offer the best response."

Microsoft is not the only tech giant involved in the AI arms race, either. Earlier this year, Google bought artificial intelligence company DeepMind for $400 million. It continues to hone the Google Now personal assistant, and though it has released few details about Google Brain, last year Google brought AI expert Geoffrey Hinton and futurist Ray Kurzweil into the company to work on deep-learning research.

Apple, meanwhile, is beefing up its speech recognition team and working to improve Siri's intelligence in the face of new competition from Microsoft's Cortana.

How likely is Viv Labs to succeed with AI ahead of deep-pocketed companies like Microsoft, Google, and Apple? It has better odds than you'd think: Viv Labs founders Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer, and Chris Brigham were responsible for creating the original Siri personal assistant. Steve Jobs persuaded them to sell their app to Apple, arguing that his company could expose Siri to a far wider audience. But as Siri was honed for the iPhone, some members of the original team grew disenchanted. "Siri in 2014 is less capable than it was in 2010," Gary Morgenthaler, one of the funders of the original app, told Wired.

After Jobs' death, Kittlaus and Cheyer left Apple and set about "re-creating Siri as it might have evolved had Apple never bought it. Before the sale, Siri had partnered with around 45 services, from to Yahoo; Apple rolled Siri out with less than half a dozen."

Unlike Siri, Cortana, and Google Now, Viv can analyze the nouns in a sentence independently and compile useful answers to multiple-part questions. Cheyer elaborated for Wired:

Google Now has a huge knowledge graph -- you can ask questions like "Where was Abraham Lincoln born?" And it can name the city. You can also say, "What is the population?" of a city and it'll bring up a chart and answer. But you cannot say, "What is the population of the city where Abraham Lincoln was born?" The system may have the data for both these components, but it has no ability to put them together, either to answer a query or to make a smart suggestion. Like Siri, it can't do anything that coders haven't explicitly programmed it to do.

Vishal Sharma, former VP at Google Now, says he was blown away by a recent demo where Viv located the closest bottle of wine that paired well with a specific food dish. "I don't know any system in the world that could answer a question like that," Sharma said. "Many things can go wrong, but I would like to see something like this exist."

Viv is an open system that will let innumerable businesses and applications become part of its boundless brain, Wired writes. Viv also gets smarter as people use it, and it has the potential to understand what you want even before you ask. Kittlaus envisions a digital assistant that, for instance, would automatically call your favorite car service to take you home if you tell your phone, "I'm drunk."

The company wants Viv to be not only smart but omnipresent, embedded in a plethora of Internet-connected objects and helping to power a million different apps. "Wouldn't it be nice if you could talk to everything, and it knew you, and it knew everything about you, and it could do everything?" Kittlaus said.

"People have been dreaming of this ideal digital assistant since science fiction writers first imagined it," CITEworld's Gohring writes. "Clearly it's a hard problem to solve. But advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence might make it possible eventually."

Maybe Viv will be the one to finally pull it off.

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