Digital assistants: If they only had a brain

Amy Scott Aug 27, 2015
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Digital assistants: If they only had a brain

Amy Scott Aug 27, 2015
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If you’ve ever used Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana or another so-called “virtual assistant” on your smart phone, chances are there has been some cursing involved. That frustration has created a big opportunity for whomever can make a better one. Now Facebook is stepping into the fray on a small scale at first. For a few hundred users in the Bay Area, Facebook’s Messenger app will now come with a feature called M.

M “can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more,” David Marcus, Facebook’s vice president of messaging products, wrote in a post announcing the pilot.

So why is it so hard to make a virtual assistant that actually works?

“Some of the problems are pure technical problems,” says Justine Cassell, co-director of a project at Carnegie Mellon to build what she calls “the next-next-next generation personal assistant.” The $10 million project is funded by Yahoo.

For example, it’s hard for machines to understand all of us all of the time — and not just what we’re saying, but what we actually mean.

To overcome some of the technical challenges, Facebook’s M will be text-only for now, avoiding the often comical limitations of voice-recognition technology. Human “trainers” will help interpret requests and supervise responses.

 “The trainers, very simply, will make sure that every request is answered appropriately, and each time that happens, that’s a lesson for the machine,” says Oren Etzioni, CEO of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence.

Over time, the machine will learn to do more on its own.

What Facebook and its competitors want, Etzioni says, is to be your mobile portal to internet and everything it offers. The easier they make it for you to get what you want without leaving their ecosystem, the more money they stand to make.

 

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