It’s Not A Two Horse Race For Voice Assistants And Chatbots Aren’t Dying

Our early virtual assistants are kind of janky. That’s okay!

Three predictions on virtual assistants in a week full of predictions — from folks like us who actually build them.

As voice assistants dominated CES last week, people are asking “is every toaster, microwave and car really going to talk to me now?” Or are virtual assistants just a fad since many are being shutdown or proclaimed dead?

It’s hard to tell from the news this week. Having spent the last 1.5 years building virtual assistants (and 20+ years building consumer tech), here’s the bets I’d make:

Prediction #1: Google and Amazon will be in a lot of devices, but neither will “own” the voice entry point to customers.

That’s because the data and brand interactions created by conversations with customers will be so valuable that companies will not want to share this data with potential future competitors. Companies might experiment with Alexa and Google, but they are not going to totally give up on building their own voice platforms as Ina Fried at Axios observed this week at CES:

It’s a fierce battle between Amazon and Google to get their assistants included on other companies’ devices. At the same time, hardware makers including Samsung, LG and Roku are (also) putting their own voice assistants into their products.

As these companies watch their users interact conversationally with their hardware, they may find that the verboseness required to be a “smart speaker” like Alexa that can answer everything may not be required to enable useful conversational navigation of, say, a microwave. A smart speaker needs to be an omniscient service that can answer everything for everyone. Often a few basic user intents like ”Yes”, ”No” and some base navigational phrases can help the user accomplish most tasks — especially if the device has a screen that can convey information as well.

I’m completely biased on this idea, but I believe companies will start turning to dedicated (plug!) conversational developers to build holistic voice and chatbot features for their businesses outside of just embedding inside the big tech NLU platforms like Alexa or Google. To be clear, I believe these proprietary services will have interoperability with the major NLUs, but will be something more than “just an Alexa skill” in the near future.

Also, the companies that are experimenting with their own services now will be way ahead of the curve when their customers expect having a personalized conversation with a brand as a primary feature. Experimentation while the market is still growing and the bar to wow the end user is low is important.

That’s because even though Google, Amazon and Apple have a huge ASR lead on most speech recognition services, the most practical assistants do not need to understand a massive vocabulary to accomplish most tasks. Again, that’s because a single domain application can manage to handle the recognition of limited entity names (cocktails, movie names, etc) within a reasonable amount of time. It can be a bit rough at first, but better to work out these issues now while the number of total users is small. If you were late to the web or mobile, don’t blow it this time by waiting to find out how to present your brand in the conversational internet. Do it now while the stakes are low.

So expect even more voice and chat platforms outside of Amazon, Google and Facebook to exist and thrive in the marketplace over the next few years.

Prediction #2: The conversational internet will expand and interoperability between conversational platforms will accelerate as consumers demand consistent, state-aware conversational relationships with their favorite brands across platforms.

Even if I’m wrong and there are not dozens of successful conversational platforms and only 3–5 conversational platforms dominate, the consumer will demand that the relationship with their favorite brands transfer state to whatever platform is convenient for them. Think streaming a movie on Netflix on multiple devices for conversations.

For example, I may start talking to Alexa about a recipe in my kitchen in the morning, but I may want to pick back up the conversation on a Slackbot while at work to confirm I want to make that recipe. Then I might want to pull it up on my phone when I’m shopping for ingredients later. If I have to start the conversation over again or the AI doesn’t remember what we last spoke about — even if that’s on another device or platform — that user will be irritated with the brand and think it is dumb.

There’s no reason for the consumer to ever feel like a brand is dumb just because it can’t remember what the last interaction was on a different platform. Platform lock-in will not work on the conversational internet, much like it didn’t on the web or mobile. Brands and their consumers will force openness onto these conversational platforms. The platforms that try to keep brands locked in to their platform will ultimately fade while the open ones expand…as usually happens. Can you imagine how pervasive Siri would be if it was launched as an open platform? MBA’s will be writing cases about that missed opportunity for years.

The thing that is really missing for conversational services to explode is an open standards body that will enable developers and companies to build interoperability for the conversational services. More on that in another post.

Prediction #3: Conversational assistants and chatbots are not overhyped or dying.

Sure, conversational assistants and chatbots have been kludgy (or downright offensive) in this first wave, but that doesn’t mean they are “dead” or dying. It means they are evolving. Yep, this is evolution and we’re seeing the extinction of things that aren’t quite right or fully baked.

Our early virtual assistants are kind of janky. That’s okay!

Every major platform change starts with weird experiments or just plain bad ideas. 98% of startup products deserve to be evolutionary fodder. Another 1.5% were genius ideas that were too early. The other .5% that survive become monster businesses.

In Wired’s reporting on the “death” of Facebook’s M assistant, they lopped in “and so are chatbots” in the headline. In the vicious hype cycle of new technology, it wouldn’t be a cycle if chatbots and voice apps didn’t suffer a bit of a blowback after last few years of exuberance for those technologies. But to say that virtual assistants and chatbots are dead because the first wave of these applications are a bit wonky would be short-sighted.

The Wired article by Erin Griffith and Tom Simonite actually lays out the real issues with not only M, but Siri and the whole first wave of all-in-one “Pangea” assistants:

M's core problem: Facebook put no bounds on what M could be asked to do. Alexa has proven adept at handling a narrower range of questions, many tied to facts, or Amazon's core strength in shopping.

Another challenge: When M could complete tasks, users asked for progressively harder tasks. A fully automated M would have to do things far beyond the capabilities of existing machine learning technology. Today's best algorithms are a long way from being able to really understand all the nuances of natural language.

These two paragraphs completely wrap up both the promise and the problem with assistants. As users, we so want them to work! The user immediately goes to superuser mode with conversational assistants -whether chat or voice-based and ask them to solve all kinds of problems out of the scope of what’s currently possible. Inevitably, the user then curses the assistant when it fails and claims “this is stupid”.

I remember the feeling the first few times I tried to get a modem to connect to the internet or using my first cell phone. You gotta look past a lot of fail to see the future.

So while the Pangea “all things for everyone” assistant phase ends, I believe we will move to a “continental drift” phase of assistants where smaller assistants will breakout and tackle complex domain-specific problems successfully for end users. There are already quite a few productivity and work-related chatbots that are effectively solving problems for customers. As more companies have their assistants focus on domain-specific or single purpose assistants we will see more consumers asking “why can’t I do that for (X problem)?” in their lives. Once this happens, I really believe every website, app, device and brand had better be conversational — or start the slow fade to oblivion.

A lot of these predictions came from the work we are doing at Pylon ai. Our first two beta products, Tasted and The Bartender, are popular voice apps on both Alexa and Google. Our apps are built to work across voice and text platforms, so they also work on FB Messenger and Slack. Our apps are also “multimodal”, which means you can use them with a screen when it’s easier than talking to them. You can see a video of how that works here. If you would like your own cross-platform, multimodal assistant for your business, please email me.

And… if you made it this far, we owe you some schwag or a Google Mini! If you’re interested, send us your address! Or if stuff is not your thing, please sign up for our newsletter here for updates on conversational assistants, Elixir, React and other stuff we talk about at Pylon. Thanks!

Why AI Might Fear Us

Illustration by Renan Cakirerk

I chuckle every time I see an article on AI article saying “We may be on the verge of creating a new life form, one that could mark not only an evolutionary breakthrough, but a potential threat to our survival as a species!” Not because it’s not possible that we would create technology that might kill us all (we’re good at that). I laugh because I may know why an artificial intelligence might want to eliminate our species.

We’re jerks. Let me explain.

Over the last year, I’ve watched a lot of early user interactions with AI/Bots thanks to Ben Brown and his team at Howdy as one of their advisors. Howdy makes a workplace automation bot that you can train to do repetitive tasks like hold stand up meetings or ask your team where to get lunch every day (if you train it to do that). Pretty great, right?

Yet, I see a lot of first time users start off their interactions with a bot go like this:

It blows my mind the number of times our conversation with some AI (Slack bots, Siri, Alexa, et al) devolve into some nasty tirade. We ask a computer to do a task that it was not designed or trained to do, it tells us it does not know what we’re asking it to do, then we immediately get all Anna Wintour on this digital assistant. How did we get so jaded that we’re not still blown away that you can talk to a freaking computer?

In the grand scheme of things, AI is a mere toddler in terms of technology development. Outside of the original Slackbot, most of the other Slack bots are only a few months old since being launched in December of 2015. Siri launched in 2011 and Alexa came out a little over a year ago. Yet, here we are yelling deragatory questions at them:

And it’s not just that we are verbablly abusive to AI. We also act like violent baboons when we interact with AI in environments like Virtual Reality. I’ve seen this firsthand while doing demos with Will Smith for his new VR company. After showing our demo, people will ask us to show other VR experiences we like. One of our favorites is the awesome “Gourmet Chef” by Owlchemy Labs. The Gourmet Chef experience is set in 2050 where robots have taken all of our jobs and “for fun” we are taught by a bot how to cook. The game inside the VR experience is to listen to the bot and learn how to cook in VR.

But do you know what half the people do the minute the experience starts? They start breaking things and throwing food at the robot! So here are these investors, lawyers, and our tech friends -theoritically smart, well-educated people — who within a few minutes abandon the learning part of the game and immediately start going apeshit on the robot….like baboons.

We saw this savage, destructive behavior in literally 1/2 of all the people we ran through the demos. Will and I would say “oh, you’re one of those people” as someone in the demo went about destroying this virtual kitchen. I remember thinking “huh, my friend Bob might be a potentially violent guy”. Don’t you think the AI will think this as well as it looks back on all of it’s interactions? Would you blame an artificial intelligence for starting to think at least half of our species was angry, violent and potentially life threatening based on millions of these interactions over time? I mean, it would be the rationale conclusion.

So, maybe we should dial it down a bit.

What if we act like these digital assistants will develop into really helpful things that might possibly make the world a better place? I’d like to think we can find a little patience and spend some time trying to teach these AI how things work- and how we should act with each other. That’s what happened in WarGames which is the whole reason I think it is so cool that we’re actually getting to build this AI stuff now. You’ve got to think feeding it years of vitrolic diatribes and barbaric encounters can’t be the right database of history for the AIs to learn from. No wonder that one of our older AIs is already starting to get sassy with the knuckleheads who keep provoking it.

So next time you want to yell at Siri or start firing off explective-laden DMs at your Slack bot, maybe think twice and be nice.

Let’s retire RSS when they retire Google Reader

Originally published on Pandodaily on April 29, 2013

It’s been over a month since Google announced it would shut down Reader on July 1. Over that time, I’ve come to realize how unnecessary and outdated RSS and RSS readers are today. Like a Palm Pilot, this 90’s technology is no longer the most effective way for readers to scan news or for publishers to reach readers. There are better technologies for content discovery. More important, pushing all these RSS readers back to websites will enable publishers to create more revenue. Google is right, despite protestations to the contrary. It’s time to retire RSS for good.

Between my time on Bloglines and Google Reader, I’ve been using a Web-based newsreader for a decade. That’s a hard habit to break. But I was determined to move on once the announcement was made. I deleted my Google Reader bookmark from my Bookmark Bar and removed the shortcut on my phone. I went cold turkey on Reader so I could focus the search for my next great reading tool. What I found surprised me. In fact, this exercise has massively changed my reading habits for the better.

I tried Prismatic for awhile. It did a great job of pushing new sources and stories to me, but it didn’t feel comprehensive. Same with Pulse. Then I checked out Feedly, but that felt like kicking the can down the road on the Web-based reader problem instead of moving on to a better reading experience. I started using Reeder on my phone because the company swears they will continue development past the Google Reader shutdown, and it’s a great app. I even bought Reeder’s Mac version of the app for $4.99 thinking the little extra cash might help the company figure it out. But going back to using software to read RSS feeds really felt like a real step back in time. Was I going to start using Outlook again too? I started to get bummed out.

Then all of a sudden, I realized that I was spending a lot more time reading newsletters. You read that right…newsletters. There’s kind of a newsletter renaissance going on right now, and I am finding great news and new sources through them. I now find these emails invaluable: MediaReDefined, Launch, StartupStats, Newsle and, of course, our very own PandoDaily Digest.

Each email from these sources does a great job of pointing me to tech/media/entrepreneur news I wanted to read. They also make me feel like I’m getting coverage I might have missed that wasn’t on my usual news sources. That was the big feature for me about RSS readers. I always felt like I could check in on Google Reader and catch up on everything I missed. These newsletters are actually even more convenient, because they pop into my inbox, where as a business guy, I spend a lot of time. They also made my news searchable, too, if I want to find an article again that I had read.

There was another big behavioral change after I went cold turkey on Reader. I noticed that I have become even more reliant on Twitter. I’ve always gleaned news from my Tweetstream, but I only thought of my Twitter feed as the stuff-happening-right-now kind of news source. Now I am going back and reading hundreds of posts to see if I missed something.

That works okay, but I wish there were an easier way to scan important news links from the people I follow — whether they are MT’d or RT’d or whatever. Since it seems like the best link practices on Twitter are up for debate,  I thought I would throw out an idea for another Twitter abbreviation for linking to news called “MR”, which stands for “Must Read.”

The format would be like this… MR: “fav quote from the article” and link to the article. Bonus points if you link the author and hashtag. Here’s an example:

MR: “..online learning doesn’t do anything to address people’s motivational needs.” tatum.in/12vCs6L by @theman#education

— mike tatum (@miketatum) April 26, 2013

That way, I could just scan my feed and quickly see the important links with quotes and context from the people I follow. Can we start that? Maybe if this catches on we can convince Twitter to add a “MR” tab at the top of the page that immediately pulls all the links and quotes from our follows for us. Now THAT would be an awesome Google Reader replacement and make going to the Twitter a bit more interesting. Maybe make some suggested MRs from people or sources I don’t follow too. But I won’t hold my breath on this one since prescriptive solutions are rarely widely adopted.

Getting off RSS also sent me back to websites I haven’t seen in years. I almost didn’t recognize these sites because they had been redesigned since the last time I visited. I also realized they had ads. Then it hit me: publishers just need to ditch RSS and get people back to their sites. It’s better for their business, and a much better reading experience in most cases.

While there are a few creative entrepreneurs creating interesting new revenue towers, er, models for publishers that can replace or supplement ad revenue, ads still help pay for the content we need and want. So reading the content on their sites is the easiest action we can take to help support great content (and I know how tired this argument is already dear commenters). I also like the remove ads option with a paid subscription model. Both require that users go to their sites to work, therefore, retiring RSS will only help publisher revenue efforts. How about driving traffic? I looked at PandoDaily’s Google Analytics just now and RSS readers don’t really drive that much traffic. Twitter, direct, and emails are by far the largest sources of traffic. Unless I’m missing something, there just doesn’t seem to be a business case for publishers to support RSS anymore.

Nothing against RSS, it has been a good tech service for a long time. It has just outlived its usefulness. Removing RSS and getting folks going back to websites will create a better experience for readers and publishers, spurring more creative business models for publishers too.

So on the day they kill Google Reader, July 1, let’s make it “Kill RSS Day” and everyone remove RSS feed options from their site. We’ll all be better off. Do we have a deal?

The Google Fiber competitive plan for everyone else

Originally published on Pandodaily on April 22, 2013

Google is dropping so many futuristic products that industry pundits like Jason Calacanis (and many others) are breathlessly declaring that “Google wins everything” with all these fiber cities, self-driving cars, and Internet-enabled glasses initiatives rolling out lately.

Out of all these efforts, however, the Google Fiber initiative really is the killshot move. That’s because these new products will need a large amount of high-availability bandwidth to keep all those cars between the ditches and glasses cranking out real time data in mass. And being the interface to the Internet and digital entertainment in all these homes sure doesn’t hurt their data-driven advertising business model either.

If your company wants in on this future fiber world, there is a way you can participate right now without spending hundreds of millions of dollars like Google. That’s because there are already fully operational, business accessible fiber networks deployed in cities across the US that you can partner with to deliver a Google Fiber like product. These networks are run by locally-owned electric utilities who deployed Fiber to the Home (FTTH) to enable smart grid electric networks. Smart grids allow for real-time monitoring and control of power usage that save these municipalities millions of dollars a year. In addition to electricity management, these utilities also deploy internet access and TV entertainment through their fiber networks, but these services are not core to their business or success.

That’s where your opportunity to compete with Google Fiber lies. These FTTH networks have been financed by DOE grants and local bond measures, so you don’t have to make a crazy upfront investment of hundreds of millions of dollars to lay your own fiber and have access to a FTTH network.

These local municipalities are also obligated to make these networks available to competition for internet and entertainment services because they are publicly owned services and their first primary business model is delivering electricity. More important to the competition opportunity, they would love to have a technology partner come in and deliver a great digital experience to their customers. This strategy should resonate in the Valley: These companies built a platform and are looking for partners to help them create new revenue opportunities.

I know this, because the town I grew up in – Chattanooga, TN – is one of these cities with a FTTH network built by a local municipality (EPB). Watch this video that CBS News did a few months back on Chattanooga, TN to hear the whole backstory of why they built this fiber network three years ago and how it is already changing the culture and entrepreneurship in the area. [Disclosure, I’m a volunteer mentor to Chattanooga’s fiber accelerator called The Gig Tank, which we’ve written about on PandoDaily before.]

To be fair, I am biased on the untapped value in these small city FTTH networks because I’ve spent time in one. Through my experience with the GigTank, I’ve learned that there are other FTTH networks in operation in Jackson, TN, Lafayette, LA, Wilson, NC and several more in various stages of deployment and development across the country. In addition to these efforts, you also have companies like Gigabit Squared getting ready to light up dark fiber in bigger cities like Chicago and Seattle and bring it to the consumer’s home.

In short, the fiber future is in full swing and will be a sizable market for new, bandwidth intensive services and products in the very near future that will delight customers. Google’s latest fiber announcements have already sparked AT&T’s competitive juices and will more than likely push other MSO’s to revisit fiber deployments. That’s obvious as they are the most threatened by these FTTH networks.

But I think the smart grid energy benefits will push fiber deployment much faster into the market than the advertising and access driven companies can roll it out, because the benefits from energy management are realized immediately on the bottom line. As these smart grid efforts accelerate it will create an opportunity for companies with advertising, digital services, and ecommerce to come in and partner with these municipalities and compete with Google on fiber apps and services. Unless, of course, these companies ignore the opportunity and let Google get too far ahead.

To the Google-getting-too-far-ahead point, I believe Google is making this sizable investment in fiber, because it wants to own and operate the whole stack. Its management understands the competitive advantage of proprietary data better than any other company. With these Google Fiber deployments, it’s going to have tons of even deeper usage data on its customers than it already has through search, browser and mobile products.

For example, one of the really cool features of Google Fiber is that you get a Nexus 7 as a remote. My bet is that Google hopes it will become your “second screen” when watching TV so it can figure out what you’re doing when you’re looking at it and ignoring that commercial on television. So when you think that Google will get even further entrenched in customer data and powering your augmented reality and self-driving experiences, it really does look like it’s teed up for world domination.

Companies like Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and even Netflix should jump at the opportunity to come in and immediately catch up with Google by partnering with these locally-owned municipalities or risk being marginalized by being too late to the market — especially those companies that are sitting on massive amounts of cash and taking a beating for not innovating or creating new growth opportunities.

It’s easy to understand why these companies would look at these small cities and their FTTH networks and think it’s too small to worry about right now. But that would be classic Innovator’s Dilemma thinking. The fact that these deployments are happening in smaller cities first is actually an opportunity. You can try all your crazy next generation fiber products without the scrutiny of grizzled tech media watching every experiment with the low overhead of life in a small city. That is until you get groups of fiber tourists like Kansas City did last week, who see the fiber future in these small cities.

All this said, maybe Calacanis is right about Google already winning this game. Google’s Provo, Utah fiber announcement last week feels like Google is already moving in this partner and deploy direction.

In short, Google is going to pay $18 million to upgrade the existing fiber infrastructure then distribute Google Fiber. It appears that even before it has fully completed the Kansas City area deployment, it realized the land grab was on. As a result it’s already pursuing these type of partnership deals.

So potential competitors shouldn’t sit idly by and watch the fiber revolution be driven solely by Google. They should get in there and do something big by thinking small (cities), and make their smaller fiber investment seem as smart as Google’s big one.

Trending: The Touch Era of Acquisitions Begins

Originally published on Pandodaily on July 22, 2012

Does anyone else find it interesting that two of our most engineering-centric technology companies just bought an email client and a news reader last week? I mean, aren’t Google and Facebook just stuffed with engineers who could jam these products out in their sleep? Don’t get me wrong, both Sparrow and Acrylic  have good products and I’m sure great product teams that will add value to the respective acquirers. What makes these purchases interesting to me is that I’m just enough of a gray beard now that when I see incumbents acquiring basic service product teams, it reminds me of prior acquisition sprees.

As far as I’m concerned, the Web 2.0 acquisition binge began when Yahoo acquired email and news reader vendor Oddpost, which was run by Automattic’s CEO Toni Schneider. For those of you who don’t remember, Yahoo was a little freaked out in 2004 because Google had launched Gmail with a ton of free storage and a massively better user experience than their Yahoo mail service. Oddpost had a slick AJAX email browser app, and Yahoo was (at the time) smart enough to know that they would lose customers to the better user experience and needed folks who understood how to build products for this “Web 2.0” user experience. From that point to when Intuit bought Mint in 2009, incumbents kept buying start ups that threatened their core service with a better user experience in the browser.

So here we are again, major companies buying start ups who understand the emerging new platform that provides a better user experience. Turns out Meeker is right again and we are at the beginning of a “re-imagination of nearly everything powered by new devices” where a focus on connectivity (mobile & social) and, as always, beauty (the better touch navigation experience) will drive a lot of change in consumer behavior.

These basic service acquisitions, as well as the real starting gun moment of Facebook buying Instagram, feel like the beginning of the “touch era” of acquisitions. That’s when the deja vu kicks in for me, because it reminds me of Hotmail challenging Outlook, then Gmail challenging Yahoo Mail. New platforms (Browser, AJAX, and now Touch) provide challenges for incumbents, and start ups who build on new platform get bought up.