It was a fairly substantial week for virtual assistants, as Facebook’s Portal video chat device went on sale, and Samsung’s Bixby finally opened to third-party developers. Like the Actions on Google platform and Alexa Skills Kit, the Bixby Developer Studio users will be able to create conversational apps that work with Bixby that Samsung calls “capsules.” A Bixby Marketplace will open to promote their work, and an expansion to some of the most spoken languages on the planet will open doors beyond the United States and South Korea, where Bixby has been limited to thus far.
After more than a year of straggling behind Alexa and Google Assistant, Bixby could leapfrog it’s competitors with third-party voice apps made with more personality and humanity, said Viv Labs CEO Dag Kittlaus. He envisions a day when conversational AI can bring a device to life that knows who you are as soon as you open the box, both to create a bond and be helpful.
Samsung Developer Conference was yet another instance of a tech giant devoting large amounts of time to attracting business partners and developers to bring their services to their conversational platform. Google and Amazon have done the same for years.
A close look at this space today might make you skeptical if it’s worth all the effort. We’ve all seen or read the articles about how the bot craze didn’t live up to the hype, and though there are more than 50,000 Alexa skills, and thousands of Google Assistant actions, there still isn’t a single killer bot embraced the world over.
It could still be, as Google Assistant product manager Gummi Hafsteinsson said one year ago, that tech giants have not yet found an ideal way to incorporate third-party experiences yet.
Contained within these faceless numbers of voice apps is, let’s be honest, a fair amount of fart apps and marketers trying to draw in sales, but they also contain the dream. That’s why Viv Labs and Siri co-creator Adam Cheyer calls voice the next major paradigm shift in computing, one that will define the next decade.
Third-party ecosystems for conversational AI make it possible to believe in an assistant that can do anything just by listening to the sound of your voice. That’s why Amazon encourages new Alexa employees to think of the Star trek computer, and why the Samsung developer conference ended with kittlaus thinking Spike jonze for the movie Her.
On their own, there’s no killer bot, but taken together, third party voice app ecosystems represent the imagination of what is possible with an intelligent assistant.
Many advances have been made in this space. If word error rates had not seen substantial declines, nobody would be having conversations about intelligent assistants as an interface for a future of conversational computing.
There’s still ground to make up in understanding human emotion, human-machine interaction, and the integration of third-party apps and services.
Most everyone in the space understands this, and that’s probably why Kittlaus talks about building the future. Conversational computing will be different than every other big shift in computing because once it actually works, there will no longer be I need for training or instruction manuals to get things done, in the hurdle to buying things or completing tasks gets even smaller.
In 2016 Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that in the coming years, every developer creating apps will begin to incorporate language, and conversation itself will become a platform.
Many interactions with bots or AI assistants make it clear we aren’t completely there yet, but backing from the biggest tech companies on the planet means we’re certainly taking steps in that direction.
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