The rise of the sentient virtual personal assistant

The operating system is where Artificial Intelligence's (AI) impact will be most felt. Currently, when we consider consumer technology we have a device-centric mindset — we may think of our phones, laptops, tablets, or TV screens. That’s because the operating systems are different. But if the operating system between them becomes identical, the focus will turn away from the type of screen and instead move to the operating system.

The changes we have seen with operating systems over the last few years have been in a very clear direction. That trajectory is best defined as a movement to reduce the gap between the external world and you. The gap can be seen in the effort required in having to search for information, having to remember a birthday, having to click into various sites to organize any activity. Much of the information is there but it requires us to cross a gap to get to it. We have to mentally flex ourselves out of shape in order to fit the disorganized, disconnected, decentralized world of information. Try missing a flight and having to change hotels, cancel your car, contact work colleagues, re-arrange diaries, call family members. We have to get our minds into the shapes of the different websites in order to operate them. Viewed from a position ten years from now, it will feel like a seamless bridge between us and the world was missing.

If you look at all the products being created today, they are skillfully trying to create that bridge — with map and navigation services, image-recognition features in social sites, recommendation engines and much more.

The most interesting bridging device, and the one that is likely to become the ultimate bridge, is arguably the Virtual Personal Assistant (VPA). At present they are very weak in their AI functionality — the voice recognition, although dramatically improved over the last few years, still requires us to flex ourselves out of shape. And their other functions are highly limited. But we must consider these through a lens of what they could become. Owners of ZX Spectrums or Commodore 64 computers, in the 1980s, would be amazed by the Xbox One and Sony PS4 games of today. What would that leap look like in these VPAs? What would a VPA have to be able to do to dumbfound today’s users of Siri?

The answer lies somewhere in your VPA having, what is ostensibly, a sentient mind that spends its entire time and focus managing your life — making everything easier, removing boundaries.

Take for example, clicking on a link to be confronted with paragraphs of prose that often surround the key elements that you want to read. Or you may click on a link about how the oil price is going to affect housing shortage and when you get to the text it requires you to read paragraphs of padding before you get to the key points. Having an AI engine read, understand and then summarize it in a couple of highly crystalized points would offer enormous benefit.

The ever-so connected VPA

These VPAs will be much more than the walled gardens that they currently are. They will be open-ended VPAs — as in they will scan the tagged-up world. This is what Viv is working on creating.

Opening up websites to search-engine crawlers is a good parallel to invoke here. The world will be opened up so that the VPAs can, through deep learning algorithms, understand everything — every ingredient, every possible way of booking/cancelling/amending/sending back, every location, what is in stock, the price, the performance, the review ratings, the sentiment and your contact’s details and calendars.

The VPA will have access to the world and will edit it for you — our sense of what the internet is will dramatically contract from an unfathomably large expanse of information into a simple human voice. A voice that will most likely be accessed audibly, or via a more embedded form (the concept of implants are being explored by major technology companies). It may also manifest through other devices – handheld, wearable, in-car or devices in the world at large that recognize that it is you.

The question is: how will we use this Sentient-Virtual-PA in marketing?

The more we depend upon AI software to handle tasks on our behalf, the more power we give to those AIs, and the smarter they will become. Ultimately, they will usher in the new world in which advertisers will need to operate. Technology will rule but creativity must not be sacrificed, despite the temptation to do so.

With VPA’s making decisions for us, marketing, which is fundamentally about appealing to people’s minds, will change to marketing towards an algorithm. That will be a major change to how things work.

Optimizing to the machine will be the greatest determinant of success. Ensuring that the current disciplines of SEO, PPC and programmatic buying are being embraced and upskilled now will help in the future as these will be the most transferable skills to our new models.

AI will radically change what we do, and create huge new challenges in reaching consumers. But even if our messages will reach fewer people, they will, in the future, reach only the right people. Marketing will therefore become more effective for brands, and less intrusive for customers.

Mike Florence, head of planning at PHD UK, is the co-author of Sentience: The Coming AI Revolution and the Implications for Marketing, of which this is an extract.

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