Remember when technology was supposed to make our lives easier, rather than a quagmire of emails, push notifications, alerts, spam and endless cute kitten videos in our news feeds? Shouldn’t you just be able to tell Siri what you want and not be bogged down by yet another web search? Remember when we were also promised jetpacks?
Well, there’s no timeline for when we’ll be zooming around skyscrapers, but a Paris-based startup is working to create a new era of “ubiquitous computing” that promises to erase the white noise of 24-hour connectedness using an artificial technology called context awareness.
Context Awareness is the idea that you can give your devices the ability to sense and react to the situation you’re in. … It’s about using this artificial intelligence to make technology disappear in a way that you can just go about your day and not care about it anymore.
This explanation comes from Rand Hindi during his TEDx talk last year on context aware computing. Hindi, 31, is the CEO and co-founder of Snips.ai, which started in 2013 as a research lab in machine learning that focused on building new interfaces between people and machines.
Hindi is the archetypal tech wunderkind. Good-looking, with a dark mop of unruly hair, and hip –he wore faded jeans, and a leather jacket over a grey hoody for his TEDx presentation – Hindi has appeared on the usual lists of who’s who and rising stars in the entrepreneurial tech world. Of course, he was precocious, based on his online bio: Hindi started coding at the age of 10, founded a social network at 14 and a web agency at 15, before getting into machine learning at 18 and doing a PhD in bioinformatics at age 21.
His co-founders aren’t exactly slackers either. Maël Primet, CTO, holds a PhD in mathematics and computer vision while CDO Michael Fester founded 8pen, a mobile app that reinvents writing on mobile devices. About a third of the company’s 40-something employees hold PhDs.
So what is Snips.ai selling, if not a jetpack? Well, it’s an app to simplify your life, which at first blush might sound like dozens of other virtual personal assistant apps out there. The difference is that Snips.ai uses artificial intelligence algorithms to give your device context awareness, which you can think of as a kind of memory. It sorts through all the unstructured data on your phone – including contacts, emails, calendars, locations visited, photos or messages – to create what it calls the user’s knowledge graph. On top of this layer of memory the developers add natural language processing capabilities, so the computer can answer ambiguous questions such as, “Show me the photo of lunch from today.”
Another way to look at it: Snips takes the snippets of your data to build what Hindi has referred to as an alter ego, a virtual personal assistant that recognizes the important details of your life to make things easy to find. In effect, “it allows you to store and retrieve the information buried deep into your phone, removing the need to juggle apps and copy-paste stuff around. … Snips acts as your single entry point to retrieve your data. … You can then search anything stored in Snips’ memory, using any related keyword. From there, you can navigate to related pieces of information, and deep link into your apps.”
If Snips needs help filling in the holes, it will cruise the internet, using apps like Google Maps to return relevant results. The more you use it, the company claims, the better Snips understands you, offering suggestions even before you search for them. That’s one of the key benefits of context aware computing.
Heavyweights like Google and Apple are also working on building context aware computing into mobile devices. Siri first comes to mind, but Google has Google Now, which also uses a knowledge graph to provide more detailed and relevant search results. So, how can a company operating on $6.3 million in seed money compete? Its secret to success may be just that – secrecy. Snips does all of its thinking locally, right on the device, without draining additional battery. Nothing is sent to a remote server, ensuring data privacy. This is an important issue to many users. A survey of 41,000 people by the Department of Commerce last year found that three of the top five issues surrounding data privacy and security include “data collection by online services,” “loss of control of personal data” and “data collection by the government.”
The company isn’t one of those tech startups that looks good on paper but doesn’t actually produce anything, absorbing countless rounds of funding until its ready to launch something marketable. In 2013, Snips worked with the French national railway company SNCF on a mobile app to forecast passenger flows on trains to help customers find a train, based on their schedule, that would be the least crowded for a comfortably journey. Other collaborations include Sprint.
Of course, Snips.ai isn’t the only virtual personal assistant app around using aspects of artificial intelligence like context awareness and natural language processing to create personal butlers. There are an incredibly large number of startups and publicly traded companies looking to get a piece of the action:
Here are three other companies that are among the “best in show” in the VPA arena, each promising to push technology into the background so we can begin enjoying what Hindi calls a “frictionless” life again:
Recently featured in the New York Times, EasilyDo was founded in 2011 by Mikael Berner, former CEO of BeVocal, and Hetal Pandya, former director at Nuance. In 2012, the company was backed by Mayfield Fund and USVP for $4.3 million, and is headquartered in Mountain View, California. Like Snips.ai, EasilyDo promises to anticipate your needs before you even ask. It suggests relevant actions based on the users’ calendars, social media profiles, email accounts and other apps such as Evernote and OpenTable. Since launching the app in December 2012, EasilyDo says it has saved people more than six years of cumulative time by identifying 15 million tasks and completing more than five million actions.
Artificial Solutions rolled out its intelligent virtual personal assistant, Indigo, in 2013 and since then has taken in almost $19 million in funding. Based in Barcelona, Artificial Solutions specializes in natural language interaction and understanding. It does the usual stuff like send text messages and navigate, as well as tells jokes, reads headlines, controls your music, translates, gives directions, searches YouTube, finds restaurants, etc. Founded in 2001, Artificial Solutions is among the more mature companies in this category that we’ve found so far (aside from the big boys like Microsoft, Apple and Google).
Like Artificial Solutions. Robin Labs bases its AI virtual personal assistant technology on natural language understanding. Natural language understanding, a discipline under natural language processing, means the computer extracts meaning from human speech. Unabashedly challenging Siri, Robin is an app focused more on location and navigation services, though it can assist with tweets and texts like a standard virtual personal assistant. Founded in 2011 and based in Palo Alto, California, Robin Labs says its Robin AI platform is open, expandable and can be taught new concepts and phrases. It has received two rounds of seed funding totaling $740,000.
It seems Snips.ai is doing something special with its context aware computing platform in what appears to be an increasingly crowded field in the AI virtual personal assistant market. What are your thoughts? Intrigued or do you think they’re all just repackaged versions of Siri with different buzzwords? We hope to revisit this topic of virtual personal assistants in more details in a future post.
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