Digital personal assistants today can help you send messages, place phone calls, schedule meetings or find answers from the Internet.
But there’s evidence that all the major tech giants are investing heavily in artificial intelligence to try and make digital assistants do a whole lot more helpful. At least that is what Raj Singh, the founder and CEO of Menlo Park, Calif.-based Tempo AI, is seeing as he works to build a smart calendar that automatically manages all aspects of your work and personal life.
During a recent visit to Seattle, Singh explained to me just how fast the sector was evolving.
Google, Facebook, Microsoft, Amazon are all actively acquiring talent and technology to advance the personal assistance space beyond what Singh calls the “participatory” nature of it today, to become “anticipatory.”
Here’s just a small taste for the big moves that are being made:
- Microsoft recently rolled out Cortana, the personal assistant tied to Windows Phone 8.1, that it is hoping will compete with Google Now and Apple’s Siri.
- In January, Google paid $400 million to buy a secretive artificial intelligence company called DeepMind.
- In December, Facebook hired Yann LeCun, a leading New York University researcher, to run its new AI division, and three months later, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg invested personally in Vicarious, a startup working on software that can recognize images.
- Amazon is also investing in the space, with the launch of two recent voice recognition products ahead of a smartphone.
- Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen is backing the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence, a multi-million dollar effort to study AI. The effort is headed by former University of Washington computer science professor Oren Etzioni.
Artificial intelligence is a broad term that covers a number of technologies, including speech recognition, image recognition and natural language processing.
Singh got his start in the category as an entrepreneur in residence at SRI International, the nonprofit research lab that is famous for spinning off what eventually became Apple’s Siri. In December 2012, Singh founded Tempo AI using some of the research lab’s technology, and launched the calendar app early last year. The 16-employee company has raised $12.5 million in capital from Qualcomm Ventures, Sierra Ventures, Relay Ventures and others.
He said Apple’s Siri is a “first-generation assistant,” but in the future, you won’t have to ask the assistant for anything — it will anticipate what you need, more similar to what Google is doing with Google Now. “Why do you even have to ask? Google Now is anticipating, and is pushing you the right notification or piece of information,” he said.
In order to pull that off, Singh says you need the data. There’s hundreds of sources to pull from, but only a few can determine intent. Google has your search history, so if you searched for driving directions, it may push you traffic information. But another source of valuable data is purchase history. Companies, like American Express or Amazon, are good sources for that, he said.
At Tempo AI, context comes from your calendar. The calendar knows that you are going on a work trip in June and to Cancun in July. “When you look at your calendar, it’s a good indicator of where you spend your time, and what’s important to you,” he said. “It’s the only app on the phone that can tell your future.”
The Tempo calendar, which is available on iPhone for free, pulls in data from around 30 data sources, including Foursquare, Yelp, Dropbox, Facebook, Google+, Klout, Flickr and LinkedIn. Within the calendar, it will give you more information about the person you are meeting with; provide driving directions and parking instructions; and post your flight status. It will also dial you into conference calls without the hassle of memorizing passcodes.
From there, Singh says they have lots of different ways to go with the app. He said imagine your calendar recommending people you should meet based on other people who are meeting the same people you are. Tempo is also learning interesting information, like which Starbucks will be the most popular next week based on appointments people have made in the future.
While artificial intelligence is a fancy name for it, Singh said it is the craft of bringing together a lot of data sources in a meaningful way: “People use a lot of different tools, and they are scattered across the cloud,” he said. “We are trying to help them be better prepared for their day.”