How Viv plans to beat Siri and Alexa in the AI assistant long game

SXSW: The co-founder of Siri thinks his current project is even smarter
Viv: your next AI assistant?

AlphaGo, Google DeepMind's AI program, is now up 3-1 against 18 time world champion Go player Lee Se-dol. It lost its most recent game, in the five game challenge, but in the previous round, AlphaGo made moves that the champion human just couldn't believe.

AI is here and though it's chess and now Go that are making the headlines, Dag Kittlaus, the founder of Siri, thinks his latest AI assistant can be the first one to provide us with "limitless" knowledge.

The global brain

Viv, the "global brain", still doesn't have a release date but Kittlaus, speaking to Backchannel's Steven Levy at SXSW Interactive, says that 2016 will be a big year for the Siri rival from the three year old startup which he co-founded after Apple bought Siri.

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Why is Kittlaus so sure Viv can usurp Siri and Alexa and Cortana and Google Voice? Because these assistants are limited to both hardware - specific phones, wearables or smart home devices - and specific functions.

Even tech companies like Apple and Amazon have only been able to focus on a limited set of features and requests that use conversational voice commands. Viv will be an open platform, available on a bunch of different devices, and it wants the world to teach Viv what we want it to know.

Opening up AI

"When the iPhone came out, there were only the basic apps," said Kittlaus. "When they opened up the App Store to over a million apps, that's when the magic happened and it changed the world.

"We feel like that's exactly where we're at in AI right now. AI is a very closed system so we've been sitting in a room for three and a half years with one of the best teams that has ever been put together on this, we're building a system that is more open. It allows third parties, in a Wikipedia sort of way, to teach it whatever they want and that is going to scale the usefulness and capabilities to orders of magnitude of where it's at today."

You choose how much it knows

When Viv arrives, Kittlaus wants its logo to become a symbol so that people know you can talk and interact with that device, app or website. As it has so much hot competition already on wrists and in homes, it is focusing on things that existing AI assistants can't do - so for instance, you could even say to Viv "I'm drunk" and it would know to order you a taxi home.

The key is contextual information that it learns over time but privacy is key. "It will be user focused so Viv will say I learned these seven things about you this week and it will be up to you to allow the system to use that information or change your preferences so it forgets. Everyone will have a different threshold."

What remains to be seen is how much common sense Viv has. All natural language and AI assistant programs eventually get stuck so it will be very interesting to see how this problem will be solved.

Viv isn't for sale

Not right now, anyway. Kittlaus was pretty clear that his company has had "multiple acquisition offers" but he and his team believe that Viv is the most important work any of them will do in their careers.

The CEO, who wrote a dystopian novel about an out of control Siri after he left Apple, wants to see some kind of limits built into AI. That's partly because the estimates of when we could reach the point where AI programs like Viv won't need humans to teach it any more gets closer every time experts are polled.

So while DeepMind concerns itself with winning the last game of the Go challenge, Kittlaus thinks that while we should be thinking about the dangers of AI sooner rather than later, the potential of Viv is worth it.


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