If you were frustrated by early versions of personal digital assistance apps like Siri or Google Now, it might be time to try again. A new wave of the technology is beginning to roll out with a lot more knowledge and horsepower behind it to help our laptops, tablets and smartphones fit naturally into the way we work and play.

With the roll out of Windows 10 to millions of PCs now underway, Microsoft’s Cortana is the most visible effort of this new wave of personal assistance technology. But there are others. Notably: Apple’s Siri, Google Now for Android, Amazon’s unique living-room product called Echo, and dozens of apps that leverage IBM’s Watson suite of cognitive tools.

personal assistance apps

The apps all promise great advances in the search function, one of the most ubiquitous activities in our connected lives. Even more exciting, though, is the potential they have to transcend beyond looking up things we ask to begin anticipating our needs and, over time, even acting on our behalf.

If that sounds positively frightening to you — and, at a time when so many feel that their privacy is being run roughshod, you’re probably in good company — you should know that you can control what they know. Cortana, for one, will only go as far as you let her. And you won’t have to make decisions about what to share right away. She’ll ask you to make those calls over time, as situations arise. In fact, about the only thing she wants to know on Day 1 is what you’d like her to call you.

The vision undoubtedly sounds familiar. It was what Apple had in mind when it debuted Siri as the marquee feature on the iPhone 4S. Five years later, it’s still what Apple wants to do with Siri. The platform giant is adding more contextual features to Siri’s arsenal in the upcoming iOS 9. For its part, Google is building contextual capabilities into Android M, the next revision of the mobile OS. The Google Now team, in turn, has plans to leverage those features.

Cortana is a relative newcomer to the personal assistance arena. The Windows 10 upgrade will be the first time most PC users will be exposed to Cortana, though she actually debuted last year on Windows Phone 8.1. (The rest of us will be able to use Cortana on our phones, too. Microsoft has Cortana apps planned for Android and iOS later this year.)

‘Cortana’ is Microsoft’s answer to ‘Siri’ and the two are facing off in what many call the “voice wars.” VPC

Ryan Gavin, Microsoft’s general manager of search, Cloud and Content, told me Cortana was created with the role of human personal assistants in mind — sort of like Alfred the Butler or Iron Man’s Pepper Potts. She’ll start out as a search agent. Even with that, though, you’ll quickly find out search has come a long way. You can ask questions that require a series of searches on Cortana’s part to nail the answer. For instance, “Who’s the lead singer of the band that plays You Really Got Me?” Before she answers, she’ll probably discover that she needs to ask whether you mean Van Halen or The Kinks.

She keeps a “notebook” on you, building a personal dossier with whatever you allow her to note. She’ll ask permission before she jots down your frequent flyer number or your spouse’s birthday, or even that you inquired about David Lee Roth. So if you don’t want her to know anything about you, she won’t. But the more she knows, the more valuable she’ll become.

For example, she might deduce after a while that the place you just pulled up to is where you work out. So she’ll ask something like, “Are we at the gym? Do you mind if I make a note?” If you agree, then you’ve made it that much easier for the two of you to communicate. Now you can tell Cortana to remind you to call your spouse when you leave the gym. And when the time comes, she’ll probably offer to make the call for you.

Without prompting, she might also learn to: Remind you to put the trash out by the curb. Check the weather for your upcoming trip to see if you’ll need an umbrella or a coat. And snag coupons for things on your shopping list when you walk into the store.

So it seems that, finally, personal assistance may be coming into its own. It’s not surprising that there have been fits and starts, because this is so difficult to do right. It requires an awful lot of cognitive ability and massive stores of data — or corpuses, as they’re referred to in the industry.

A big piece of what makes personal assistance so challenging is that computers and people don’t reason and communicate the same way. Even if an app has a working knowledge of all the colloquialisms in the language corpus, there’s still the individual to decipher.

“The most important part — and, obviously, the hardest part – is figuring out what you know,” Microsoft’s Gavin said. “What’s in your head? What are your personal preferences?”

Rob High agreed that applying “reasoning strategies” is critical, albeit challenging. High is the chief technology officer for IBM’s Watson operation, which provides cognitive tools and massive corpuses for app developers to build, among other things, personal assistance products for everything from chronic illness management to hotel concierge services.

“To be successful, you have to apply multiple dimensions,” High told me. “You can’t just be listening to their words. You have to ask questions, maintain a conversation. You have to understand their intent.”

And it all has to be done very quickly. Because we can lose our patience with technology very quickly.

Aparna Chennapragada, director of product management and engineering for Google Now, said her team strives to enable people to ask for assistance “at the speed of thought.” But she warned that the cost of getting it wrong is much higher with speech assistance.

Chennapragada said she measures the stakes with what she calls a win-to-loss ratio. For every traditional search question you don’t get correct, she estimates that it takes about five successful searches to win back your trust. For navigation, the ratio is more like 10:1. And for voice assistance, it’s closer to 50:1.

Which helps explain why you may not have touched apps like Siri or Google Now since one of them frustrated you years ago. With this new wave of technology beginning to roll out, though, it might be time to give the personal digital assistants another shot.

News by USA Today

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