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Apple's Labotomy Of Siri & The Rise Of The Virtual Personal Assistant Market

Seriously Siri, you ain't what you use to be. Back in May, 2009, I wrote about the first iteration of Siri, titled: "Siri, Advice from Virtual Personal Assistants." For those who haven't followed the iPhone evolution, while Siri was first integrated into iPhone's operating system with their "4S" launch, it existed as stand-alone app previously. Fueled by artificial intelligence, it was a harbinger of what was to come in the new age of Web 3.0 and semantic technology.

Harkening back to the science fiction of the last century, many will remember the computerized navigational assistant,"HAL 9000" from the 1968 thriller "2001 A Space Odyssey." His artificial intelligence became so advanced throughout the course of the movie, that by the end, he actually morphed into the villain of the piece with the ability to take full control of the spacecraft. Similarly, Siri prior to being acquired by Apple was the largest "artificial intelligence" project in the U.S. at its time. Made possible by a $150 million DARPA investment, the project included 25 research organizations and institutions and spanned 5 years.

Back then, according Bianca Bosker of the Huffington Post, "Siri boasted an even more irreverent tone -- and a more robust set of skills." According to Dag Kittlaus, SRI International's co-founder and chief executive, his company had carefully crafted their virtual personal assistant with an attitude and backstory that was "otherworldly," "vaguely aware of popular culture" and armed with a "dry wit," Kittlaus said.

So what happened? Where is the reasoning and learning that was originally built into Siri's original programming, and why was it necessary to remove the frontal lobe of its brain, similarly to the outdated lobotomy operations of the 1940s and 50s?

Bosker describes the marked difference between Siri the First and Google at the time. "As conceived by its creators, Siri was supposed to be a 'do engine,' something that would allow people to hold conversations with the Internet. While a search engine used stilted keywords to create lists of links, a do engine could carry a conversation, then decide and act," reported Bosker.

"The do engine was designed to be a participant in the life at hand -- one that could anticipate what you wanted before you wanted it, and make it yours before you could ask," she added.

Well, one of the reasons for a 'lobotomized-version' of Siri was to introduce an assistant that could multi-task within the iPhone ecosystem as it stands today. This way existing iPhone users could see the advantages of utilizing the added feature. Apple made it's dummy-downed Siri able to access about a dozen of Apple's built-in tools to handle simple tasks like scheduling a meeting, replying to emails, checking the weather, or selecting a restaurant from a Yelp listing. In other words, its intent was to take baby steps and build from there.

So while Siri slept, the virtual personal assistant space has found an opening to advance. iDeaUSA Products, Inc., a leading manufacture of Android Tablets based in California, is now the first tablet manufacture to integrate a Virtual Personal Assistant in all of its tablets models sold in the USA. With the ability to create your own identity for its VPA, including gender, founder Stephen Perl says you "can even have a chat with your Virtual Personal Assistant, if you are bored."

While a lot has been written and speculated about the yet-to-be-launched Google Glass, including my recent blog ("While Google Glass Stalls, Augmented Reality Has Eyes On Innovega's Contact Lens"), Scott Huffman, Google's Vice President of Engineering for Search was quick to point out how the Big G will compete. "One thing that we're really excited about and working hard on is transforming the way that people interact with Google…from the stilted one-keyword-at-a-time conversation, to more of a natural conversation…like a human assistant," said Huffman. However, with a price point hovering around $1500 and a launch date delayed until late in the year, Google, like Siri might not be doing enough to keep ahead of the pack.

This past January, Gary Morgenthaler of Morgenthaler Ventures in speaking at the Entrepreneurship Through the Lens of Venture Capital conference at Stanford University told a group of aspiring student entrepreneurs that their biggest concern should not be the market nor the competiion, but instead -- time.

Morgenthaler said that in order to disrupt a market developer needs to be 10x faster, 10x smaller, and ideally 10x cheaper. He labeled this action as "entrepreneurial agility" where there's a pressing need to do everything faster including iteration, showing growth and convincing investors.

So the era of virtual personal assistants will advance in tandem with the development of artificial intelligence, semantic technology and Web 3.0. It's a wide open field that will allow for a lot of disruption, but don't count out some of the existing players, as we've already seen from Google - and perhaps even Facebook, who when satirized in the graphic novel, "Facebucks & Dumb F*cks" hinted at Zuckerberg (aka "Z Man") taking a shot at becoming the Web 3.0 driving force in the very near future.

Page from Facebucks & Dumb F*cks graphic novelPage from Facebucks & Dumb F*cks graphic novel