The Future Is Here, and It’s Chatty

Among the most-talked-about news at Google’s I/O conference this week were the announcements of two AI-related projects: Google Assistant, an upgraded digital assistant capable of conducting two-way conversations and performing tasks like ordering movie tickets, and Google Home, a competitor to Amazon’s Echo that would combine home automation with virtual assistance.

Meanwhile, ZDNet leaked that Microsoft is working on its own conversational helpmate, the Bing Concierge Bot. Just as Google’s virtual assistants will make use of that company’s search technology, Microsoft’s—as the name implies—will leverage the wealth of data collected through Bing user searches to make intelligent recommendations on, for example, nearby Italian restaurants that can seat a large party. The company has so far declined to provide more information on the project.

These developments are a sign of the bot wars to come, as technology companies compete to offer the best solutions for a future in which humans interact more naturally with the digital   world.

It’s also a future in which, as envisioned by Google and others, virtual assistants are our constant companions, following us from car to office to living room and interfacing with multiple devices.

“The idea is that assistant should really be bound to you and not to a device and it should really transcend the hardware and follow you around,” Vlad Sejnoha, chief technology officer of voice interface technology company Nuance, told WIRED.

As Paul Thurrott points out on Petri, search engine providers have an advantage in this landscape, which makes both Google and Microsoft strong competitors. Microsoft is moving forward with its open-source Bot Framework, which includes developer tools and a bot directory. Bots developed with Microsoft’s tools can be deployed on channels including Skype, Slack, and—announced this week—the teen-oriented messaging app Kik.

As with any new technological frontier,    privacy concerns are emerging. Google faced controversy after it was revealed that the default mode in its new Allo chat app disables end-to-end encryption of messages. (Users have to enable it by opting for an incognito mode.) Even NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden weighed in, calling the lack of default privacy features “dangerous.” Google counters that the information-sharing is necessary for the app’s botlike features, such as AI-powered recommendations, to function.

While such concerns will persist, they’re not likely to significantly hold back development. It’s a chatty new world. Let the best bot win.




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