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Me & my virtual assistant [Gadgets Special] [Times of India]
[December 18, 2012]

Me & my virtual assistant [Gadgets Special] [Times of India]

(Times of India Via Acquire Media NewsEdge) Have you wished for a personal aid who can tell you the score of your favourite team, remind you about appointments, crack a joke and be emotionally in sync with you Newer smartphones may just be the answer.

One day in early September when Aatif Sumar was in office , his phone beeped and vibrated. He picked up the device - a Galaxy Nexus - thinking he had got an SMS. Instead, he found a virtual card that not only told him it was time to leave for home, but even drew a route he could take, the traffic condition there and the estimated time it would take. The card was from Google Now, a virtual assistant built inside smartphones that runs on Android 4.1 or a higher version.

"I didn't ask my phone for any route. I never told it about my office or the location of my home," says a surprised Aatif. Looks like he didn't have to. Google Now is a newage virtual assistant. "It uses the time of day, your location, and its history to show you what the traffic on your commute will be like," says a Google spokesperson. "Informational cards appear when you're out and when they're needed most." Aatif had upgraded his phone to Android 4.1 in August. For a few weeks, the phone observed and learned. "Apparently, it learned my schedule. The place where I spent my nights became my home. The places where I spent my weekdays became my office," says Aatif.

But while Google Now goes about its tasks with a sense of grave responsibility, Siri, a virtual assistant from Apple available to all iPhone 4S and iPhone 5 users, has a flashier personality. To begin with, it wants you to talk to it. If your questions are interesting you could get an interesting answer from Siri too. Saying "I love you" may earn you a reprimand - "Do you say that to all your phones" . If you mean business, Siri seems equally adept. It can dial up numbers saved in your phone, take down your messages and send them to 'your wife' . It can tell you the weather of the day and set up your appointments.

Artificial intelligence is on the upswing. Virtual assistants have added contexts. To Siri, you can simply say, "Call my daughter" and you don't have to repeat the name again and again.

Google Now also connects the dots. Every morning when Rushabh Vora, a sophomore student in Los Angeles wakes up, Google Now shows him the exchange rate for rupee in terms of dollars and the weather of Mumbai, where his parents live.

When Rushabh searches for information on Manchester United on Google, the app tries to make sense of it. "If Manchester United is playing and I am traveling, Google Now shows me the score believing I am interested in Manchester United," he says.

It's impressive. "But this is just the beginning," says Chuck C Smith, a researcher working on man-machine interactions at Intel Labs. Intel is working on a virtual assistant called Dragon that will allow computer users to control their machines using natural interface like voice. "The existing virtual assistants are just the tip of the iceberg. Extending the realm of contextual information is the next logical step," says Smith. "The personal assistant should be proactive enough to anticipate the needs of its user, to a much, much greater extent than is possible now with Google Now. A personal assistant needs to be autonomous and able to act on the behalf of its user." Scott Huffman, engineering director at Google and an expert on information retrieval , machine learning and search, agrees. He says helping machines learn the context is the next big step. "It is incredibly difficult for machines to accurately process the voice but we are getting better. As we gather more data and machines get more efficient at processing the information , it is improving," says Huffman . Context is tougher nut to crack. "Language, which humans find so easy to interpret and understand, is baffling for the computer," he says. "I can tell my wife, 'let's go to that Chinese restaurant' and she will understand because we know what Chinese restaurant we are talking about. But the current virtual assistants can't . It will be a while before they can be more human like." Smith doesn't even stop at the context part. "The personal assistant must also be able to interpret the mood of its user, which can influence the conclusions made from what is heard. A user's intent must also be deciphered ," he says. Now that's a difficult one to crack.

Smart Show Siri It's the first service to come close to a virtual assistant. It has a personality and is much better at understanding conversations. It understands English, Mandarin, Cantonese, German, Italian, Spanish, French, Korean and Japanese. It's emotionally closer to users as compared to other virtual assistants Google Now It doesn't talk to users. It works in the background and prompts users with nuggets of information it feels could be useful to them. For example, it can track your shipments because it can get the tracking number from your emails S-Voice It's Samsung's virtual assistant and is available on high-end Galaxy smartphones. Apps like Vlingo and Iris also fall in the same category. Even Micromax phones have a service called Aisha, which can perform actions on the basis of voice commands.

(c) 2012 Bennett, Coleman & Company Limited

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