Companion Is The New Assistant

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Editor’s note: Andy Hickl is the co-founder and CEO of A.R.O., a stealth mode Seattle startup. He previously served as CEO and chief scientist of Language Computer Corporation and as co-founder and CEO of Swingly. Follow him on Twitter @andyhickl.

Did you hear that 2012 is the year of the assistant?  It’s clear: Siri was only the beginning.

Today, assistants can perform a small set of tasks, each saving me a few precious steps (or clicks) along the way. That’s not the way it’s always going to be. In the future, assistants will be capable of doing more and more non-trivial things. And Norm Winarsky is right — Siri isn’t one assistant to rule them all. We’re soon going to have a whole posse of specialized software agents on our side.

Even so, the assistant conversations here on TechCrunch have focused for the most part on pretty cut-and-dried vertical uses, such as e-commerce.

I’d argue that the ultimate use case for assistants, however, is a much more basic one: it’s helping me make the most of my life before I run out of time.

One school of thought says that assistants should be all about delegation. I pass tasks downstream, and in doing so, I reclaim my time and energy. I think that several companies will achieve big things doing just that.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. What about an assistant that doesn’t take things off my plate — but rather, wants to put things on it? What about an assistant that guides me down paths less traveled? What about an assistant that aspires to help me be a better version of myself? What about having a colleague instead of a secretary? A mentor instead of a student?

What would it mean to have a rewarding, mutual relationship with a computer — not in a GTD sense, per se — but rather in my private life? A relationship that was based on mutual admiration, a high level of trust, and a secret handshake? We need a corollary to the notion of an assistant. I like having an assistant. But I want a companion too.

A companion is more intimate. That’s the allure. It’s more personal, more…me. It’s additive, bringing new data and new considerations, looking around corners and recognizing patterns I can’t yet see.

With a companion, you’ll have to give more to get more, too. It’s more of a partnership, and a true love. A companion is an emotionally evolved species. Better put, a companion actually aspires to help me be a better human, and lead a better human life. A companion is about more than just finding me an ATM, conducting a web search, or deleting a calendar entry. It’s about achieving goals, and revealing truths.

At a time when Siri clones are sprouting up left and right, users are wondering what’s next. Their eyes have been opened to the possibilities. We’re ready to let software assistants into our lives into a new way. We’re ready for a companion.

Technologically, we’re at the confluence of three major trends right now that make the notion of building a software companion a realistic endeavor, each of which points to what makes a companion special, and differentiated.

Here they are.

The Transparent Self

The first challenge is figuring out how companion apps are going to acquire all the personal data that they’ll need to transform our lives.

If trends hold, most of us will be happy to give it away.

Apps like Highlight — and more recently, Placeme — are perfect examples of exactly how much personal data we’re willing to fork over if we’re promised enough value. We’re all playing a semi-risky game: we expect that if we give some piece of ourselves away, we’ll ultimately get something in return that makes all that disclosure worth it.

The real question remains, however: do apps today give us a fair return on our personal data?

That was one of the knocks on Highlight coming out of SXSW. We quickly found that the tool that made it easy to spot the Facebook recruiter at the Foursquare party wasn’t all that fun (or valuable) when we were sitting in the airport lounge, hungover and ready to go home. Wasn’t anything wrong with the app; it was just that it was no longer the assistant we needed at the time. We uninstalled.

In order for apps like Highlight or Placeme to be successful, they have to convince us that there’s real, persistent value in handing over personal data to the man (or woman) behind the curtain.

And there’s a real race to find the killer value proposition that will unlock the mother lode of data from users. Will it be automatic checkins? Real-time friend tracking? Or something deeper and inherently more valuable? We’ve only seen the opening acts so far.

Location-based apps may have the inside track. We’re already seeing location services being used in a variety of clever ways. There are apps that can automatically check me in, apps that tell me who’s nearby, apps that can recommend new BFFs, based on where I’ve been and what I happen to like on Facebook.

Whether we find them personally valuable or not, these apps aren’t going away. In fact, I believe they’re going to be an integral part of the companion apps that I’m so fond of.

Here’s why. If you know where I go on a daily basis, you can infer a lot about both who I am and where I’m likely to go next. See me at a bar (or a tech startup) at 1:30 am three nights a week? You can start predicting whether or not I’m married, have kids, or will need a pick-me-up on the way into work the next morning. Pair that with some estimate of how likely I am to stop at McDonald’s on my morning commute, and you’re on your way to pegging me as a hard-working, junk food junkie who probably needs to find time for a run.

From examples like these, it’s easy to see how location data – of the type that many of us give up freely now – can be used to build a personalization layer that could power a pretty invaluable companion app.

The Aspirational Self

This brings us to our second challenge. Once they’ve got the data they need, how are companion apps going to be able to keep us using them?

Venture capitalist Tim Chang may have just hit the nail on the head with his piece on the Aspirational Self, which he defines as the rich intersection of gamification and the Quantified Self.

If you’re not familiar with it already, the Quantified Self movement is a trend that Kevin Kelly and others have been blogging about for years, but that has only recently become a mainstream concept. Nicholas Felton’s annual Feltron Report is the defining example of the category. Wearable technologies like Nike’s Fuel Band, the FitBit, as well as apps ranging from Runkeeper to Xobni are good examples. The Quantified Self is about charting my progress and “interactive personal infographics” – the idea of looking backwards at one’s activity and habits as a delightful new kind of science.

Tim argues that games are powerful motivators simply because they let us have fun along while we’re on the path to self-improvement.

But what if we didn’t have to play games? What if we could just cut to the chase? When my wife insists that I go to the doctor, or suggests that I try a new taco joint she knows I’ll love, I (often) just go. She doesn’t have to “game” me because we’re long past playing games at this point. And that’s the way we like it.

A great companion (human, software, canine, or other) knows me well enough that I trust it implicitly. It’s that kind of trust (such as those between intimates or between a boy and his app) that could make companion apps so valuable – and so hard to put down.

Just like gamification, companionship brings levity and fun back into the equation – while introducing a sense of mutuality, and “otherness” that we don’t normally get from games. It’s all so much eating your vegetables and “self help” – right up until it’s suddenly and delightfully living life the way you want to, and making the most of every opportunity, collaboratively. It’s a fine line, but if you crack the code, you’ve got something grand.

The Quantified Self has always been a mostly solitary endeavor. Yes, I might share my victories or shortcomings to Twitter and Facebook as a victory cry, or some kind of outsourced motivation, but who really cares that I ran 6.3 miles today or that I’ve dropped 10 pounds this year? Your followers might tolerate it. Your friends might be marginally interested. But you can always count on your companion.

Let’s just put it this way. What’s the biggest pain point available to us entrepreneurs? It’s got to be death and dying. The elixir of life? That’s the ultimate killer app, and the foundation of the entire pharmaceutical industry, among other things.

But what’s next in line? What’s just below a fountain of youth? Well, it’s making the most out of the time you do have here on earth.

This is precisely why both assistants and companions are so compelling. But assistants just work on the outside world, whereas companions work on…me.

The Clued-In Self

So far, we’ve talked about how companions need to understand both the past and the future in order to be effective. They document where I’ve been and what I’ve done – all in the service of helping me better understand where I might go, whom I might go with, and what the ramifications of my choices might be.

So, what about the present? Here’s where companions face some of the biggest hurdles – and where they could also really shine. Why?

First, companions are proactive.  While it’s in an assistant’s very nature to be reactive, companions have to work on your behalf, unbidden, behind the scenes.

An assistant like Siri, again, takes orders – and with a little conversational poking and prodding — fulfills them. Companions on the other hand jump up, grab you in the moment, forcing you to pay attention to the stuff you might have missed otherwise.

They’re the capricious, know-it-all little brother (or sister) that Siri never had.

Second, companions are infinitely adaptable in the present, on the fly. As humans, our interests, needs, and desires are constantly changing. We need software companions that keep can keep up and understand exactly what we need in the moment. A great companion is with me all of the time, it’s always on. And because of that fact, it’s better able to mold itself in my image.

A true companion can accommodate the self that I am always becoming – it’s adaptable to the core.

Conclusion

Is this all going to come true overnight? Absolutely not.

What I’m trying to evoke here is a notion of advanced, personal software that aspires well beyond the apps and services that catch our eye today. We’re seeing little hints and signals of the future – that’s exciting.

But I’m worried we’re also instigating a kind of modern clone war – a fast-follower culture that prizes mimicry over true risk.

It ain’t going to be easy.  And yet, at the end of the day I still feel that longing – not for an assistant that does my bidding, but for a more evolved species that provides…great company.