Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer created the artificial intelligence behind Siri, Apple’s iconic digital assistant, and one of the first modern apps to capably handle natural language queries on a smartphone. Today the pair showed off their newest creation, Viv, a next generation AI assistant that they have been developing in stealth mode for the last four years. The goal was to create a better version of Siri, one that connected to a multitude of services, instead of routinely shuffling queries off to a basic web search. During a 20-minute demo onstage at Disrupt NYC, Viv flawlessly handled a dozen complex requests, not just in terms of comprehension, but by connecting with third-party merchants to purchase goods and book reservations.
The major difference between Siri and Viv is that the latter is a far more open platform. One of the biggest frustrations with Siri is that it has only a small number of tasks it can complete. For the vast multitude of requests or queries, Siri will default to a generic web search. Viv’s approach is much closer to Amazon’s Alexa or Facebook’s Messenger bots, offering the ability to connect with third-party merchants and vendors so that it can execute on requests to purchase goods or book reservations. The company’s tagline — intelligence becomes a utility — nicely sums up its goal of powering the conversational AI inside a multitude of gadgets and digital services.
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The critical distinction here is between broad horizontal AI and specialized vertical AI. A service like x.ai, which shares investors with Viv, is focused on just one thing: scheduling meetings. It does this task very well, but it can’t do anything else. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and their ilk are meant to be broad AI, able to handle a variety of different tasks. They act as the command and control bot, forwarding on queries to the appropriate bot for booking a hotel room or ordering flowers. So far Amazon and Facebook have been clear that their approach will aim to integrate with as many third-party services as possible. Siri and Google Now, on the other hand, have remained more closed off.
Microsoft is also investing heavily in the idea of smart bots, and showed off an engine for creating them during its recent developer conference. At the heart of the paradigm shift from apps to bots was the concept of “conversation as a platform,” said CEO Satya Nadella. Viv epitomizes this trend. Its creators have been working on the problem of natural language comprehension for over a dozen years, starting with a DARPA-backed AI project in the early 2000s. That has led to a very nuanced and powerful system, capable of understanding and acting on queries like: “On the way to my brother’s house, I need to pick up some cheap wine that goes well with lasagna.”
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“Viv is designed to be devices agnostic — think one platform, open to all services, for all devices, personalized for you. Viv’s goal is to be ubiquitous so it will understand your preferences and history as you engage with it on your mobile device, or in your car, or with your smart device at home,” said Adam Koopersmith, a partner with Pritzker Group Venture Capital, one of Viv’s investors. “Our sense is there will be a move away from having hundreds of different apps that act independently. These services will be integrated into everyday life. Viv will be the platform to enable it.”
Viv will be in competition with Microsoft’s bot engine and the APIs put out by Facebook to encourage developers to build bots for Messenger. At today’s demo it handled complex queries that sounded a lot like the sort of thing Hound is good at. Viv responded to things like: “Was it raining in Seattle three Thursdays ago?” and “Will it be warmer than 70 degrees near the Golden Gate Bridge after 5PM the day after tomorrow?” But she could also handle more social queries like: “Send Adam 20 bucks” and “Send my mom some flowers.” Onstage, at least, these actions happened far more seamlessly than the experience folks have been having with Facebook’s bots.
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So far, Hound hasn’t been a huge hit with consumers. And, at least at first, Viv certainly won’t be able to offer merchants distribution to a massive consumer base the way Facebook and Amazon can. Viv’s founders believe that third-party developers and merchants will choose them because of the strength of their AI and because they are a neutral party, not a tech giant. Onstage it showed off what it claims is a breakthrough: “dynamic program generation.” With every verbal request Viv dynamically spit out code showing off how it understood and handled the request. That would hypothetically allow developers to build out a robust conversational UI for their services simply by speaking to Viv and tweaking the code she generates in return.