Apple scooped up the company less than three months after the Siri app launched. Since then, we’ve all been held in suspense. Once Apple acquires a company, says Winarsky, “they go into radio silence, and believe me, they don’t share with SRI or anybody” as to just what their plans are.
But, even if Apple is ready to offer a virtual personal assistant to every iPhone 5 buyer, does that mean every iPhone 5 buyer is ready for a virtual personal assistant? Not if it doesn’t at least outperform Clippy.
Jason Hong, an associate professor at Carnegie Mellon University and a member of its Human-Computer Interaction Institute, says Microsoft Word’s Clippy failed for two reasons: he was intrusive, interrupting you when you had already begun a task, and he simply wasn’t very smart, often failing to understand your intentions, when you bothered to indulge him, that is. Hong found an explanation at a talk given by Eric Horvitz, the Microsoft researcher who worked on some of the AI behind Clippy. “They had to lobotomize all the machine learning they used, to make it primitive enough to run fast and in real time” on your desktop, says Hong.
Now, though, smart phones are blisteringly fast, and complex processing can be outsourced to the cloud, which means we can fully leverage the fruits of AI research even from relatively simple hardware. What’s more, adds Hong, Siri is crucially “driven by what the user is explicitly asking”—it doesn’t pop up officiously, like that insufferable paper clip.
Winarsky is betting that virtual personal assistants will be ubiquitous, and widely accepted, sooner than many expect. Looking beyond the restaurant reservations that Siri handled so well, Winarsky foresees an era when virtual personal assistants offer advice and recommendations on a range of topics. Eventually, he says, the technology will be folded into the desktop and the Web, and it will make people rich. “Within 10 years,” he says, “we will see the value associated with virtual personal assistants throughout our marketplace to be in the many tens of billions—and [it] optimally might reach the 100-billion-dollar level.”
The biggest stumbling block ahead might just be how willing people are to be heard constantly issuing commands in carefully enunciated English into their iPhones. “I used to play a game of guessing whether people I saw talking to themselves were drunk, crazy, or on the phone,” says Hong. “And sometimes it was pretty hard to tell.”
In that sense, the most important feature visible on the leaked 9to5Mac screenshot may well be the button labeled “OFF.”