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Can Viv help where Siri flounders?

Do Not UseDo Not Use 10/05/2016 By Dave Lee

I'll be upfront: I've got a pretty low opinion of Siri, Apple's virtual assistant.

It may be that it doesn't quite make out my accent - which is a mixture of Cambridgeshire and Londoner - while Google's software manages just fine.

It may be that asking it "What is the Cambridge United score?" resulted in search results for the University of Cambridge's Wikipedia page.

Or it may just be that in the five years since it was built into Apple's mobile devices, it hasn't really got close to being a key part of how we work.

Some will disagree - but I ask you, if Siri was suddenly removed, would you really miss it?*

Turns out the very people who originally created Siri aren't too enamoured with its progress, either.

When Apple took over the company, Siri's creators Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer soon became unhappy.

In a revealing Washington Post piece last week, they said their vision didn't "align" with that of Steve Jobs - and there was only ever going to be one winner in that situation.

So they left, leaving behind Siri, but taking with them a hope to build on what they knew and create something new. Something better.

That product, unveiled today in New York, is Viv. That's pronounced Viv, like Viv Richards, not Veeve or Vive.

The company has dubbed it "The Global Brain", and its secret sauce is tight partnerships with popular services, and a unique way of understanding human queries.

The app will start a "rolling launch" towards the end of this year.

On stage at TechCrunch Disrupt, Mr Kittlaus showed how he could say "send Adam 20 bucks for the drinks last night", and Viv would integrate with payments app Venmo to send the money quickly.

He also showed off complex sentences, such as asking if it was raining in Seattle three weeks ago on Thursday.

There were integrations with flower sellers, and Uber, and various other services we've seen linked up before through apps, most recently Facebook's Messenger.


But, if I've seen one controlled on-stage demo of a personal assistant I've seen a thousand.

Microsoft, Apple, Google, Facebook… they're all at it, and right now the culmination of all this research appears to be checking the weather and ordering food.

If, as Microsoft boss Satya Nadella declared, bots are to be the new apps, they surely need to be better than apps. Right now, aside from terrific demos, we've yet to see these promises come to fruition in the real world.

But here's why Viv may stand out.

Siri - and other assistants - rely too much on hard-coded actions, the Viv team argues. If you throw the software a completely random, complex question, it will struggle to decode it in the same way a human assistant might.

Mr Kittlaus demonstrated how Viv would generate its own programs almost instantly by picking up keywords and information points. He said this means Viv can scale extremely quickly, adapting to what users throw at it, rather than relying on what their team comes up with beforehand.

Mr Kittlaus described Viv as "software that's writing itself".

The big question from here is whether the team's approach will be enough to make up for Viv's potentially fatal flaw: it knows next-to-nothing about its users. Both Google and Facebook, and to a lesser extent Microsoft and Apple, can draw on terabyte after terabyte of data about its users, helping to make their AI more intelligent. Well, in theory.

But Viv? It's making a standing start in a race that began years ago. That could all change if it's acquired by one of those firms, but the Viv team said it has already turned down offers from Google and Facebook. You get the sense that Mr Kittlaus and Mr Cheyer are, after what happened with Apple, determined to go it alone. That will be extremely difficult.

If you're wondering why all of these companies have ramped up their efforts in this area, think about how you use your smartphone.

When we first started getting to grips with apps we were happy to have lots of them for each different task.

But there are signs that suggest we're beginning to tire of having one app for news, another for shopping, another for social networking and so on. It means the reality for all of these companies is that unless you're one of the top five most popular apps - or at least accessible through them - you might as well not exist.

The Viv team hopes its distinctive "V" logo is going to become as recognisable as the wi-fi or Bluetooth symbols we see everyday.

But in order for that to happen, the 26-strong team at Viv needs to win a fight it has picked with the biggest technology companies in the world.

Follow Dave Lee on Twitter @DaveLeeBBC and on Facebook

(*That said, I do of course appreciate the impact Siri and other voice control tech has had for those with limited accessibility. Not all of us are lucky enough to be able to use a touch screen.)

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