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Why email is a better virtual assistant

Mike Elgan | Nov. 10, 2015
Google is inventing something better than Siri, Cortana, Alexa or even Google Now: artificial intelligence email.

1 google inbox

Now that virtual assistants are here, we need to decide where they live. Here's an idea: How about inside email?

The location of virtual assistants depends on which assistant you're using. Siri, for example, lives on the other side of your iPhone or iPad Home button -- or the Siri button on the new Apple TV remote.

For Cortana, it's inside the Windows 10 search box on the task bar or conjured up with the microphone icon. You'll also find Cortana through a voice command on Android and, soon, living inside a dedicated iOS app. And if one report is accurate, Cortana will also live in your ear, accessible through a tiny hearable computing device.

Google Now can be found all over the place: in the Chrome browser, in the iOS Google app, inside Android apps via the Now on Tap feature, via a voice command on Android phones, on Google Glass and elsewhere.

And Amazon's virtual assistant, Alexa, can be accessed via the Amazon Echo appliance.

Interacting with a virtual assistant is mostly about talking. You talk to the assistant. The assistant (usually) talks back.

This would be super convenient if your assistant were available to you all the time. But it's not. If you're driving, or at the movies, or in a meeting or beyond a mobile data network, you might not be able to get access. Also: Talking is a natural user interface, but it's not easily reviewable, searchable or made asynchronous.

What if every virtual assistant interaction showed up in email? And what if your virtual assistant actually lived in email?

It appears that Google is exploring this idea.

Cheating on the Turing test

The Holy Grail for chatbots -- artificial intelligence software designed to hold conversations with people -- has been the Turing test, first outlined by British mathematician and computer scientist Alan Turing in 1950. A computer program passes the Turing test if, after a text-based chat conversation with a person, the human can't tell if he's interacting with a human or a machine.

No program has yet uncontroversially passed the Turing test. Natural human language is still too difficult a problem to solve for today's technology. And that might be a good thing for now. Once computers can pass as people, they'll replace people in a wide number of jobs at scale.

Meanwhile, it's possible to creatively apply today's not-quite-Turing-ready technology. Instead of replacing humans, what if chatbot A.I. technology was a tool for people to work faster, better or with more ease?


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