Soon, your voice will be the best way to search for anything online, period.
But we're still using our hands to find what we're looking for, just as we did with desktop computers, and books before them.
Using our hands to operate computers, while commonplace, is inefficient for mobile devices. And that's because the mobile world we live in comes with several challenges and limitations:
- Everything is smaller on a smaller screen.
- Typing is harder on a smaller screen.
- Finding and using content from all of the mobile apps you've downloaded isn't always easy.
- Since mobile devices are typically used on the go, you want to get things done as quickly as possible.
That's why voice assistants like Siri and Google Now are so important — and why they'll be vital for the future of computing.
How advanced digital assistants might work
Right now, people approach digital assistants to answer simple questions:
- "How many cups in a gallon?"
- "What's the capital of Nebraska?"
- "What's the score of the Yankees game?"
Soon, though, digital assistants will be able to accomplish much more complex tasks.
Let's say you want to have a romantic evening with your partner. You can tell Siri or Google Now, "Help me create a romantic evening tonight," and it would complete the following tasks in mere seconds:
- Find a restaurant with "romantic" properties — maybe mood lighting, or a specific type of cuisine that reviewers have found "romantic"
- Find a romantic night activity like a movie, or a location that's been reviewed as "romantic," like a park or a promenade
- Your voice assistant could schedule these things into your calendar, but know to leave enough time between these activities so you can get to each location in time
Another example: Maybe you want to book a vacation to Hawaii. Just ask Google Now or Siri and it could instantly help you find and book the following items, in quick succession:
- An open week in your calendar far out in advance to save you some money on reservations
- Cheap roundtrip flights via the travel apps you've downloaded
- Affordable Airbnb or hotel rentals in Hawaii
- Attractions like guided snorkeling tours or hula shows
It's not about questions and answers; it's about having a conversation
He told Tech Insider that "we're at the cusp" where digital sources like Expedia or OpenTable can be easily accessed and controlled with just our voices.
But if you've ever used Siri, you've probably had this experience: You ask a question, and Siri gets the answer wrong because it A) doesn't know the answer, or B) didn't understand the question.
Unfortunately, when a voice assistant gets something wrong, you're forced to start all over again.
"You can go down these blind alleys, where [the voice assistant] misunderstands it's about to do something that's not as you intended, and there's no easy way out of that other than restarting," Kaplan said. "That's very different than what a human conversation would be."
Soon, voice assistants like Siri and Google Now will learn the principles of conversation: You won't have to restart a conversation if the voice assistant doesn't understand your request. It would just need to identify what it doesn't understand, and ask for clarification. (Of course, it's difficult to teach a computer to know when it doesn't know something!)
"It's never going to be perfect," Kaplan said. "They don't have to get it right all the time as long as it's easy to repair the misunderstandings... I understand 80% of what my wife says to me, but if I get something wrong — I don't take out the garbage, I empty the dishwasher instead — it gets corrected, quickly. This notion of repair, recognizing when things go off track on either side [of the conversation] — crossing that boundary is going to be important."
Of course, having a human-like conversation with our devices is only part of the recipe towards a hands-free future.
Expanding beyond the smartphone
A great personal assistant needs to be an expert at everything: People want their assistants to be great at navigating, finding restaurants, and helping you with day-to-day tasks at work and home. But soon, we might see personal assistants that are unique and specialized for certain tasks, markets and industries.
Mike Thompson, executive VP and general manager of Nuance's mobile division, has witnessed the evolution of his company's development on personal assistants: first on feature phones, and eventually on mobile devices and the mobile web.
Thompson argues that personal assistants need to be specialized: the experience on a smartphone is different from a wearable device, which is different from a virtual reality device, which is different from a car. We want our personal assistants to do things relevant to those devices and designed around their capabilities.
"It's such a complex world out there, we're working with hundreds of companies to build personal assistants for individual use cases," Thompson tells us. "There's no doubt Apple and Google and Microsoft will center on their mobile phone experiences and that consumer wedge, but we're much broader than that: We're reaching deep into the enterprise; that's not typically a place Apple or Google would go with their personal assistant experiences. Similarly, around the TV space, we've seen incredible pick-up of personal assistants that are designed for the TV ecosystem, which is pretty sophisticated."
Google seems to be taking a different approach to Nuance. A Google spokesperson told Tech Insider that the cmpany is focusing on one assistant that can "organize information and make it accessible to you, no matter where you are." But Thompson believes specialized assistants are required to help organize the "tremendous amount of data" from personal assistants.
"The rate of progress personal assistants have made in the last three years is mind-blowing," Thompson said. "We're seeing improvements on a week to week, month to month basis. People have become familiar with the personal assistants that are on their phone, and that familiarity is broadening beyond that to other devices. There's an expanding world of personal assistants and device makers that want to do unique things — unique segments like healthcare and enterprise, where the personal assistants are very unique. We're working on different kinds of applications that cut across different segments. That's been our expansion. That's what we've been working on."