Tag Archives: smart assistants

🤖 Strawberry picking robots, winning users and societal challenges.

This week returns to strawberry picking robots, overcoming inertia to win users and the challenges of user generated content for children and wider society. A rather wide ranging newsletter this week then.

Picking strawberries.

When we held our entrepreneurship event for the London Symposium (an event which celebrates UK business) a few years ago, the focus was very much on robotics and AI.

One company showcasing their wares was the Shadow Robot Company which was looking to build robots that could pick strawberries. Not as easy a task as you might imagine and requires both clever hardware and software.

Something like this is tough because it is not something you can just tell a robot to do. There are too many variations. Instead a robot needs to be taught the fundamentals and then work out the best approach itself.

Embodied Intelligence, which has just come out of stealth aims to take this very approach. It does so by mimicking a human and learning from each interaction.

Eventually it will have done something enough times to figure out the best approach itself. A solid approach albeit one that is still much much slower than teaching even a baby. It seems to require a clean environment as well right now so I’m not entirely sure it is up to the task of picking strawberries yet. One step at a time though..

More on Embodied Intelligence’s approach here.

Overcoming inertia to succeed.

Inertia. Never underestimate it. If you want someone to switch from one thing to another you need to overcome it and something that you use everyday requires something big to succeed.

When Hotmail launched webmail in the mid 90s, most people were stuck with their ISP email accounts. Awful to use and difficult to access anywhere there wasn’t much inertia.

So with a big advantage and excellent marketing Hotmail became extremely popular despite heavy competition from copycats. Its viral marketing was so superior that it is still used today as an example of how viral marketing can succeed.

It was not till 2004, that someone figured out a way to overcome that inertia again. Gmail announced to much disbelief that it would give away 1 GB of space to everyone who uses its platform. It also dropped the idea of folders and introduced search. Enough to overcome inertia and woo a lot people away.

Fast forward to today though and there doesn’t seem to be much reason to switch email provider (at least so far). AOL launched Alto back in 2010, which was a nice clean email client, easy to use and with clever features. In some ways it was similar to Google’s Inbox client, which takes a similar approach of group together types of messaging and aims to streamline the email experience. Some love it, some hate it. Regardless it clearly was not enough to persuade people to switch and as a result it is shutting down on December 10th.

The next generation email client is not dead though and I suspect we are on the cusp of a new type of email client. One that integrates with smart assistants and will make email easier to deal with. One day..

What are we doing..

Happy group of kids playing at the park

Bringing up children is wrought with challenges. The world is never the same as when we were brought up so new decisions have to be made. Is the same approach as when we were younger the right approach or should a different path be taken. If a different path is taken what doe that do to other decisions? Challenging indeed.

One (obvious) huge area of change is the amount of technology available to children today. Whilst screentime is always a concern, I seem to remember being hounded away from the TV when I was young so actually this is not such a new problem.

It is actually what is on those screens that is creating the biggest challenge.

The ability to find almost any content you need on YouTube has meant that children get introduced to YouTube very early on. This is as a direct result of YouTube allowing anyone to upload content.

By removing the friction of publishers and TV channels from the mix, any creator can quickly meet the desires of an individual.

The downside it that this can be abused and technology which understands content is not as good as the technology which creates content.

So today, when it comes to apps like YouTube Kids, which visibly sounds like a YouTube safe for kids, is not really. It is not a human curated channel and means that sometimes the technology filters get things wrong.

Is that OK? At what age does it become OK? It all depends on the content, which in turn means that initially supervision and eventually teaching children to be both self-aware and understand core concepts is even more critical. This is nothing new though.

Eventually, technology filtering will catch up and then we have bigger questions to answer. This is just one more strand of a bigger problem where content appears that we (as a society) do not want it to. The obvious example today is fake news – but already this has become more broadly defined as content someone does not agree with. At some point we are going to have to define what should and should not be filtered before we drift too far towards censorship.

James Bridle has written up an excellent and detailed article looking at content targeted at kids, how automation is being used and how it is all having an impact on not just kids but the wider society. Read it here.

👋👋Whats next for messaging as another stalwart departs.

This week we say goodbye to a messenger app that dominated North America and look at a new battle for messenger supremacy.

Its finally gone.

AOL Instant Messenger is shutting down in December. For most of you this will be a “so what” moment but it will be on almost all tech news sites as it was by far the biggest instant messaging service in North America. Here in the UK, MSN messenger was king for many years but that shut down in 2014.

Of course today it is all about WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger and Snapchat. Originally, these companies did little to differentiate from old messengers other than being a better experience on the mobile. That it seems was enough.

Today though, the capabilities of these apps are increasing. Filters, augmented reality, chatbot and of course more artificial intelligence.

But language continuously evolves around us and as technology opens new ways to communicate, so does the way we communicate. Today the world is emoji crazy. Tomorrow though smart assistants, augmented/virtual reality and holograms are all going to have a large impact on how we communicate.

Facebook announced Spaces last year, their vision of social networking in the future which I suspect will be looked back upon much the same way as we now look back on Microsoft Bob, Microsoft’s attempt to transform the computer interface. We still don’t have mainstream 3D computer interfaces but they are coming and with it will come the ability to communicate within these digital realms.

Microsoft Bob

Interoperability is not important.

Meanwhile, Amazon has brought its Alexa calling capabilities to the UK. It will allow you to communicate with other Alexa users (and hopefully call US phone numbers as well).

Now there are a lot of Alexa users out there but it is still only a tiny minority of my friends. It isn’t like there is anything compelling for me to use it.

Amazon is a late entrant to the messaging space though early within the smart assistant space. Still, this is not an open and new market and with heavy competition from Google and Apple it is going to be an uphill battle to make Alexa calling a real success.

Now if it allowed me to call other platforms, message WhatsApp, Snap or Facebook Messenger – that would be useful.

There are of course benefits strategically to Amazon building an Alexa-only calling capability – it serves to lock people into the platform and reduce churn. That only happens though with major adoption, which of course they don’t have.

Back in the 2005, Google launched Google Talk its first of many unsuccessful forays into messaging. Very quickly though they made it possible to chat to Yahoo, AIM and MSN contacts and the big players worked together to create a way for them to interconnect. It never really worked though and its struggles do not bode well for Amazon. This was not due to the open nature of the platform but rather a poor user experience and completely missed the mobile opportunity.

Unfortunately that industry-wide effort to create interoperability was abandoned and we are left with messenger silos again today. If I only use Snap and you want to message me you either have to download Snap or fallback on SMS.

History seems to suggest that this interoperability will only happen when a market becomes mature and stable. Perhaps the instant messaging market had matured enough for that to start happening only for mobile to disrupt it.

Perhaps though we could agree on some basic standards which all platforms can build to and allow for basic messaging between platforms.

Without this, unfortunately we are not likely to see any interoperability between devices for a long time without external intervention – that intervention in turn would slow down innovation so I guess we are destined to continue in the same vein for now.

Perhaps we will see WhatsApp and Facebook Messenger release “apps” (aka skills) into the Alexa and Google Home ecosystems and make the whole Alexa calling thing disappear.