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Intelligent Machines

A Personal Assistant Mines Your Life to Help Out

Cue feeds on e-mail and social-networking accounts to highlight important events and update contacts automatically.

As anyone unlucky enough to have been locked out of an e-mail account knows, e-mail is not just for sending messages anymore. E-mail and social networks have become personal filing systems that store friends’ addresses, flight details, phone numbers, and all kinds of other information that is difficult to live without.

What’s next: Cue analyzes the contents of your e-mail, calendar, and social-networking accounts and tries to summarize the information you need for the day.

A new personal-assistant app for the iPhone, Cue, offers an alternative to painstakingly compiled to-do lists and electronic calendars filled with information pulled from work and personal e-mail accounts and social networks. The idea is to automatically retrieve crucial information just before you need it.

Daniel Gross, who cofounded Cue with Robby Walker, says the app is needed because the number of ways we share information has exploded, making it that much harder to corral everything we need to go about our lives. The average person receives 63,000 words a day through e-mail, social networks, and other accounts, he says. “It’s getting worse and worse over time—human capabilities are not growing at the same pace the information volume is.”

Cue is reminiscent of Apple’s mobile personal assistant Siri, which also attempts to do the hard work of getting what a person needs from a profusion of online services. However, while Siri makes use of public services such as Yelp, Google search, and Wolfram Alpha as well as a user’s phone, Cue’s focus is intensely personal. Using it involves handing over your credentials for up to 22 different services, such as Gmail, Facebook, Dropbox, and Apple’s iCloud.

The app’s main function is to show a timeline of the day ahead that summarizes the most significant events and shows the user all the important information at a single glance—not just calendar events, but also related e-mails or messages on social networks. If, for example, you are taking a flight that day, the time of takeoff is shown, along with the confirmation code needed to check in. A restaurant reservation or purchase of concert tickets will be converted into an event on the timeline, with the address of the venue underneath. Scrolling ahead yields similar information for future dates.

Cue also maintains an address book that automatically updates itself if new information comes in via e-mail, Facebook, or other accounts. For example, if someone you know sends out a Facebook update noting a new phone number, Cue’s contact book should instantly reflect the change. If someone sends you an e-mail from a new work account, relevant details about the job are pulled out of the person’s e-mail signature.

In a brief trial of the app, the most impressive feature was the way it collected contact information such as numbers and addresses from e-mails and other messages. The daily schedule view worked well if there were some calendar events to give Cue the hints it needed to dig out relevant context. But for a person who doesn’t use an electronic calendar much, the schedule is usually empty. In Technology Review’s trial Cue didn’t manage to convert a flight confirmation e-mail into an item on the schedule, although it had managed to do so in demos by the company’s founders.

Gross says the company is working out the kinks and adding more advanced features to the application. For example, it could learn to use flight confirmation e-mails to understand that you are away from home: “Maybe it can suggest that you haven’t booked a hotel, or [highlight] people you know that live where you’re going.” Similarly, any recent messages or files mentioning your destination might become more prominent.

Cue started life in 2010 as Greplin, a “personal search engine” that fed on the same data sources as Cue and served results as a user typed a query—just as Google’s “instant” Web search does. Cue retains that search function and uses the same technology to power its automatic features. Gross and Walker decided to transform Greplin into Cue after seeing how people used their search tool. They claim that Cue will have much broader appeal than its predecessor because it requires less effort from the user. Cue is supported by $4.8 million of investment funding, some of it from notable tech figures such as recently departed Facebook CTO Bret Taylor and Gmail inventor Paul Buchheit.

If Cue can live up to its founders’ claims and help automatically manage users’ lives via smart phone, it could well become a target of a buyout by Google or Apple as they try to make their mobile operating systems more compelling. Cue’s focus on a person’s own information makes it an interesting counterpart to Siri. The company’s founders say they are committed to remaining independent because Cue must be able to integrate with all types of online accounts to be fully functional. When large tech companies compete, however, they tend to make it impossible to link different services.

Cue already makes some money from premium accounts that allow a user to connect it to professional services such as the project tracker Basecamp and the corporate social network Yammer. Walker says that Cue’s focus on specific tasks could make ads in the app valuable, much like those that appear next to Web searches. For example, an ad could suggest a hotel after Cue learns that someone has booked a flight.

Hear more about social networks at EmTech MIT 2017.

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