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Virtual assistants are going to replace your mouse and touchscreen


iPhone 4s Siri

The idea of everyone having a virtual assistant sounds a bit pompous. After all, an "assistant" has traditionally been a luxury reserved for the elite.

Yet, many companies are working on bringing virtual assistants to the masses — including Facebook.

On-stage at the O'Reilly Next:Economy summit, Facebook's AI guru Alexandre Lebrun and Siri's original creator Adam Cheyer took issue with the notion that these tools are for the elite. 

"Really it’s just another way to interact," Cheyer said. 

Both argue that these "virtual assistants" are just new ways of interfacing with a computer. First came the keyboard and the mouse, and next it will be using natural language, Lebrun explained. 

Cheyer used the example of needing to pick up a bottle of wine that pairs well with a lasagna en route to his brother's house. If you wanted to do that yourself, you'd need to determine what wine pairs well with lasagna (search #1) then find a wine store that carries it (search #2) that is on the way to your brother's house (search #3). Once you have that figured out, you have to calculate what time you need to leave to stop at the wine store on the way (search #4). 

Instead, Cheyer's new company, Viv, is designing an "assistant" which can string all those answers together using artificial intelligence and give you the right answer. These assistants are designed to save time like a traditional assistant does, but they're also fundamentally changing how you would interact with your phone, your watch or your computer, Cheyer said. 

The future of human-computer interaction will be more like asking complex questions in natural language, rather than searching for the answer piece by piece by piece across a bunch of apps and websites.

Facebook is beginning to address this with its M service, which handles tasks such as calling Comcast to get your cable bill lowered or book a reservation. Of course, M is currently powered by real humans toiling away on these jobs and "training" the artificial intelligence technology to eventually shoulder more of the load. 

The goal of M is that virtual assistant technology will gradually learn how to do more transactional operations, rather than just rote searching of the web. It's a change in how users and companies interface as much as it is a change in how people interact with computers.

"The better we get, the less time you spend talking to customer service," Lebrun said. "It’s a gain for companies, but it’s also a gain for personal life."

SEE ALSO: My month as a human version of Siri — and how Facebook can avoid repeating history

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