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by Jason Snell & Dan Moren

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By Dan Moren

Viv, the spiritual successor to Siri, gets its first public demo on Monday

Note: This story has not been updated for several years.

The Washington Post teases a look at Viv, a new artificial intelligence system developed by the team that originally created Siri:

Most virtual assistants today can understand a set of human questions. But those queries have to be stated in a precise way, and they trigger largely scripted responses. What distinguishes Viv is that it aims to mimic the spontaneity and knowledge base of a human assistant, said Oren Etzioni, chief executive of the Allen Institute for Artificial Intelligence in Seattle.

By working with data from movie-ticket vendors, it can understand the multitude of ways people can ask it to buy movie tickets. It can look up showtimes and, on its own, suggest entertainment alternatives from other vendors if the desired showing is sold out. And it can compare prices and then buy the tickets, along with making a restaurant reservation beforehand. If the user changes her mind, the assistant can take care of the cancellations and let her know it’s done.

There’s clearly a paradigm shift underway. Siri, Alexa, Cortana, OK Google, Hound, Viv–all the major players, and a few upstarts, are racing to provide the best intelligent agent. Viv’s pedigree, developed as it is by Siri’s creators, is impressive, but it hasn’t gotten a public workout yet.

Overall, the risks I see with the future of the intelligent agent are choice and opacity. Ask Viv to buy some flowers, the Post story suggests, and it’ll contact FTD. If you don’t want to order flowers from FTD, you’re apparently out of luck. Everything comes down to who Viv makes deals with–just as with Siri and other intelligent agents. If you want to order a pizza from Domino’s, that’s great, because Domino’s has been incredibly smart and now lets you order pizza on everything from your watch to your TV. The downside is that you then have to eat Domino’s pizza. Viv at least is also making deals with delivery services like Grubhub, and is aiming for a ubiquity that would hopefully make choice a bigger part of the equation.

That’s intertwined with the issue of opacity. When an intelligent agent invariably messes up and orders you the wrong pizza or delivers flowers at the wrong time, how do you figure out what’s gone wrong? The system’s inherently a black box. That said, our trend has been towards increased opacity as technology has gotten more and more complex. Troubleshooting an iPhone, for example, is much more limited than troubleshooting a Mac–force quit an app or restart the phone…after that, you’re probably best off taking it to the Genius Bar. Same goes for automobiles today versus thirty years ago. And yet people have, by and large, taken that tradeoff: transparency for convenience. It’s not hard to see why: when I ask Alexa to play a song and it just plays it, well, it doesn’t really matter to me where it comes from.

I’m eager to see Viv’s technology demoed publicly1 on Monday at TechCrunch’s Disrupt conference, especially since it’s increasingly seemed like Siri needs a kick in the pants.

  1. A friend of mine who worked on Siri at Apple has joined his former compatriots at Viv, along with many of the other members of the Siri team. 

[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Twitter at @dmoren or reach him by email at The latest novel in his Galactic Cold War series of sci-fi space adventures, The Nova Incident, is available now.]

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