A Cambrian Explosion In AI Is Coming

Editor’s note: Dag Kittlaus is co-founder and CEO of Viv, which attempts to simplify the world by providing an intelligent interface to everything. Previously, he was co-founder and CEO of Siri. 

You can call it a Virtual Personal Assistant, an Intelligent Agent, an Intelligent Interface or whatever you wish. We call it inevitable.

The Missing Piece

The era of the assistant that began with Siri will eventually dominate the way people interact with mobile devices, computers, cars, wearables, appliances and every other piece of technology that requires complex human-machine interaction. Nearly all of the large Internet players have now launched or are working on some effort to win this next-generation paradigm and it’s the earliest of days.

Despite the massive uptake of assistants spurred by Apple’s Siri, Google Now, and Microsoft Cortana, the market and technologies for this paradigm remain in their adolescence. Siri was the first chapter in a much longer, larger story that reminds me of the original iPhone launch in 2007.

Both Siri’s launch and the original iPhone launch featured slick and intuitive new interfaces that improved upon the basic form and function of an already ubiquitous personal technology. Both set new bars for simplicity, and enhanced the way hundreds of millions of people interact with technology.

But only one of them quickly made the move to catalyze the creativity of the world and create an entirely new, multibillion-dollar ecosystem that continues to grow over half a decade later. The move of course was the opening up — the democratization of mobile applications to third parties, and the creation of the App Store.

That dynamic is precisely the missing piece of the puzzle that will transform today’s useful but limited versions of AI into a ubiquitous and everyday presence in our lives. A cambrian explosion is coming.

The Next Paradigm

Hollywood has been inspired by the simplicity of this paradigm for decades. However, today’s Web and app ecosystems haven’t changed substantially since their inception, offering too many options and too much manual work for a user to achieve a given task.

However, done properly, this emerging conversational paradigm enables a new fluidity for achieving tasks in the digital realm. Such an interface requires no user manual, makes short work of complex tasks via simple conversational commands and, once it gets to know you, makes obsolete many of the most tedious aspects of using the apps, sites and services of today. What if you didn’t have to: register and form-fill; continuously express your preferences; navigate new interfaces with every new app; and the biggest one of them all, discover and navigate each single-purpose app or service at a time?

Let me repeat the last one.

When you can use AI as a conduit, as an orchestrating mechanism to the world of information and services, you find yourself in a place where services don’t need to be discovered by an app store or search engine. It’s a new space where users will no longer be required to navigate each individual application or service to find and do what they want. Rather they move effortlessly from one need to the next with thousands of services competing and cooperating to accomplish their desires and tasks simply by expressing their desires. Just by asking.

Need a babysitter tomorrow night in a jam? Just ask your assistant to find one and it will immediately present you with a near complete set of personalized options: it already knows where you live, knows how many kids you have and their ages, knows which of the babysitting services has the highest reputation and which ones cover your geographic area. You didn’t need to search and discover a babysitting app, download it, register for it, enter your location and dates you are requesting and so on.

This is a far simpler world where your desires drive the ecosystem of services to action on your behalf. This paradigm becomes even more useful when you start to think about the emerging market for the Internet of Things, where many devices you will interact with require a completely eyes-free or hands-free interface. Commands replace controls and an entirely new OS for integrating disparate devices, services and experiences emerges.

The Ultimate Market

So as this described world of an “open” intelligent interface scales what does it ultimately manifest itself as?  A massive marketplace.

Remember, this is a system that is orchestrating and serving up your goals and sub-tasks to thousands of services that compete and cooperate to accomplish things for you. And as a platform emerges that is capable of utilizing contextual signals, personal preferences and the simplest of interaction models, this becomes a magical combination that unlocks entirely new opportunities for participating services and applications. A hereto-unrealized commerce space I call the “referral economy.”

A great example of this is to imagine the opportunity presented to a whole range of services at the moment a user on a matchmaking service confirms a date. According to my friend and CEO of Match.com Sam Yagan, this happens roughly 50,000 times per day on his service alone. In today’s Internet, upon completing your date reservation, you may find a link that says, “send a gift” or some other relevant follow-on action. This immediately punches you out to a different service that shares a small cut of any business acquired via that link.

Of course, from a user’s perspective, this is not seamless because they need to start over and enter all of the contextual information still locked in the dating site. Such is todays typical affiliate program model… and it’s a sliver of what could have been from a revenue and usefulness standpoint.

At this contextual “just arranged a date” moment lies an opportunity to intelligently prompt if the user would like to see what is going on on friday night in the area, get tickets, book dinner reservations, send an Uber to pick them up or send flowers to the table. Incremental revenue nirvana.

Some improvements in this realm are coming in the form of things like “deep linking” and potentially Apple’s forthcoming “App extensions” which act like an IFTTT-like mechanism for linking a few simple capabilities or passing on some basic user credentials. These help but remain incremental scaffolding built on top of an aging infrastructure.

As AI reaches scale as a utility-like cloud service empowering developers and enterprises to create magical experiences, we may see a seismic shift of online advertising revenue away from search engine discovery marketplaces such as AdWords. This could lead to more of a consumption-based transaction model where certain types of brands big and small fight to be the best sources of full-service, programmatic data and services where the customer only pays when a user consumes their service. The programmable web finally arrives and the long rumored CPA (Cost Per Action) model goes mainstream.

The Ultimate Promise

The unlocking of AI ultimately allows this Cambrian Explosion to finally find the light of day and enables a dynamic new world to emerge. As your trusted assistant becomes more and more capable as thousands of developers join the marketplace, it brings scale and breadth to something that AI has aspired to for decades. It scales usefulness.