15 March 2015

Do we really want smart personal assistants?

During the ROCKIT Roadmap Conference in February, I was designated to take notes and summarize the results of the session for scenario 2, “smart personal assistants.” That's harder than it sounds! I think the most important thing we learned was that whether European businesses will be successful in this emerging technology area is highly dependent on the business models they adopt and the culture that develops in Europe around them.

When people think about smart personal assistants, they immediately assume that the goal is to build a rival to things like Siri – an engine that can assist any user on a wide range of topics. This is actually a no-go strategy for European business for two reasons.

The first is that it's not the European way. This kind of generic personal assistant makes a great sales vehicle for global giants, but is poor at delivering what the customer actually wants. By its very nature, it's really more of a smart *im*personal agent on commission. Historically, European businesses have been based on a strong business-to-business orientation. They understand their local contexts and verticals well, and provide better end-user products and services because of it. Their offerings are niche – sometimes so niche they're just ways of getting around the limitations in some technology one of the giants has been pushing – but there's no shame in that. It may not be the way to fast growth and glitzy headlines, but I for one would rather provide genuinely useful products and services. Couple that with the fact that it's what we do well and there's really no question about the right approach.

The second reason why it's a bad strategy for our community is that even if we wanted too, we couldn't compete for one simple reason – data. These systems work because the giants fielded them among enthusiasts when they were just “good enough”, and improved them massively with larger and larger amounts of data as their use grew. Yes, we need to do more to share data among ourselves, and yes, we may well have better machine learning – but they have first starter advantage. The group consensus was that it would take us ten years before we were ready to start thinking about fielding a rival system, by which time the world will look completely different.

Once we recognize that this is the shape of the game that we're in, it tells us much more about what kind of community infrastructure and cooperation we need to create in order to support each other and do better all round. That will be the subject of my next blog post.

Jean Carletta, University of Edinburgh

We invite stakeholders of all kinds to comment on these views, whether or not they were at the Roadmap Conference - are they right? Please use the comment facility below.

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