Conversational Technology: Siri, Alexa, Cortana, and the Google Assistant

One of the big laughs from Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home, where the crew from the future travels back in time to 1986 San Francisco, happens when Scotty is put in front of a PC and the chief engineer of the Starship Enterprise speaks into the mouse, “Hello, computer.”

In the 30+ years since that film came out, society has undergone a digital transformation. Now the average half-asleep user can roll over in bed and call out from under a pillow, “Hey Siri, start the coffee.”

The dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT) brings your daily environment alive with smart home and smart office devices. However, it’s up to innovative app developers to introduce creative controls for these devices. Here’s a look at the tools developers are using to integrate their software-defined innovations with the big four conversational platforms: Siri from Apple, Alexa from Amazon, Cortana from Microsoft, and the Google Assistant from Alphabet.

The Top 4 Virtual Assistants

Siri

In 2010, Siri was one of the first functional virtual assistants, quickly acquired and branded as an essential Apple function. Siri had been built on the shell of DARPA’s Cognitive Assistant that Learns and Organizes, or CALO. In Scandinavian languages, Siri means “beautiful victory,” and in Swahili it means “mystery” — but both could be nods at its origin in the Department of Defense. More practically, Siri’s name is also derived from its parent organization, SRI International.

Apple’s SiriKit helps developers integrate their apps into iOS and the early experiments in smart home infrastructure. Siri handles the voice-based user interactions and natural language recognition functions. It connects the app with the camera, ApplePay, VoIP calling, and other related services.

Alexa

When Amazon was developing the Echo device, it needed a wake-up word that wasn’t likely to be confused with other mentions. Tests with the name “Amazon” tended to generate responses whenever a commercial for Amazon came on TV and would start buying items at random. Alexa was chosen for the virtual assistant when it was released in 2014, but users had the option to change its name to Echo or Amazon.

Amazon has created an Alexa Skills Kit, a collection of self-service APIs, tools, documentation, and code samples for developers who want to build onto the Alexa platform. They also offer a Smart Home Skill API for streamlined control of smart home technologies like cloud-controlled lighting systems or rooms with variable thermostat settings. This code is designed to run in the cloud, not on the Echo or the user’s mobile device.

Cortana

The same year Amazon put Alexa on the market, Microsoft demonstrated Cortana at the Build Developer Conference. In 2015, Cortana was included as part of the operating system in the Windows 10 desktop and mobile platform update. This year, Cortana will be integrated with Microsoft’s Skype. Microsoft is trying to catch up with other conversational platforms through superior personalization. Cortana’s Program Manager, Marcus Ash, said, “Millions of years of evolution tell us that relationship means personification. If you don’t put a face on it and make it emotional to people, it’s just hard to believe that people will tell us information that will make Cortana really great for them.”

Microsoft has an advantage with decades of developer research to build a comprehensive software kit. Integrating Cortana in Your Apps at the Microsoft Virtual Academy has videos, slide presentations, a free trial of Visual Studio, and various other resources for developers. It even goes into testing procedures and error handling. Unlike Siri, which only works with Apple’s iOS apps, Cortana works with common applications like Hulu Plus and Facebook.

Google Assistant

When Google, Inc. reorganized itself under a parent organization called Alphabet in 2015, it freed up the Google brand to redefine itself. While Alphabet goes on to invest in wild ideas, from humanoid robots to extending human life spans, Google is turning into a virtual assistant. In direct opposition to the other three platforms, Google’s assistant doesn’t have a female name or the illusion of a personality behind the algorithm. Google’s Jonathan Jarvis explained, “We always wanted to make it feel like you were the agent, and it was more like a superpower that you had and a tool that you used. If you create this personified assistant, that feels like a different relationship.”

The Actions on Google program has a single API that can support various Android devices including phones, tablets, and watches. It includes both Direct Actions, where the user asks for something specific, and Conversational Actions, where the user asks for something general and the Google Assistant engages in a conversation to gather all the details. Google demonstrated the Conversational Action with an Uber request, where the Assistant moderated a conversation with Uber about where the user is going and which kind of Uber service they want to take them there.

Converging Trends Driving Conversation Platforms

Though most of this tech has been available for years, 2017 should prove to be an exciting year in conversational platforms as these five trends converge:

1. Mobile Natives

The success of chat apps like Facebook Messenger, WhatsApp, and Kik are driven by an entire generation of mobile-native consumers, comfortable with messaging and interacting with their devices.

2. Language Recognition

Chatbot personalities and AI natural language processing are far more accurate than ever in understanding speech and context-aware requests.

3. Mass Personalization

Sophistication in sensors and wearable tech have made mass personalization and predictive assistance both possible and profitable.

4. Secure Online Payments

Blockchain and related online payment tech have integrated themselves seamlessly into messaging and third-party apps.

5. Always-On Interface

Notification intelligence has advanced to the point where it can reliably serve as an always-on interface layer across devices.

Best Applications for Smart Home/Smart Office

Some of the most useful applications available to users without programming experience involve Alexa recipes on If This Then That (IFTTT.com). These should inspire developers to go further.

  • Phone Finder: This connects to the iPhone Finder on iOS, but is limited if the ringer is off. For Android, you can combine recipes to turn up the volume and play music.
  • Lock the Doors: At night before they go to bed, users can direct Alex to make sure all the doors are locked.
  • Change the Lights: To make sure you get the message when a timer goes off, even if you don’t hear the alarm or are outside, Alexa can change the lighting to make sure you see it.

In the office, Microsoft projects that Cortana will be able to streamline your day at the office and make everyone more productive by discovering where time is wasted. For example, you will be able to ask Cortana who is in the office and when they are out of a meeting. Cortana will also be able to help assemble teams for collaborations, discovering who has the best skills and experience needed for each project. It will do this by culling information from emails, company documents, web searches, and software authorizations.

The big news from Google is their Google Cloud Speech API, which will be set up to handle more than 80 languages. The intent is to integrate with any application in real-time, streaming or batch mode. The API will be able to support communications from any device that can send REST or gRPC requests, including phones, PCs, cars, TVs, and other IoT devices. Google claims that this tech will be able to identify and respond to commands even in noisy environments, which could open it up to other types of work environments and public areas. Initially the API will be free, but Google plans to add tiers of paid service levels later on in development.

The future of Apple’s Siri is likely to include a standalone device to compete with Amazon Echo. Apple suggests that Siri will be able to search through images and videos to find either personal photos or an applicable YouTube video. Siri also demonstrated an ability to understand vaguely worded commands like, “Tell Nancy I’ll be five minutes late with WeChat.” A vision of what’s possible is the MapMyRun app from Under Armour. The next version will allow users to tell Siri to start, pause, and resume a workout among other functions. The built-in brand loyalty of users on iOS, OSX, and Apple HomeKit makes Siri’s growing openness particularly attractive for app developers.

The Default Interface for the IoT

Virtual assistants will have to be the average user’s primary interface with the IoT, at home or in the office. There will be at least 28 billion IoT devices by 2020, so knowing how to integrate your applications with conversational tech will be a critical skill set in the very near future. As people grow more dependent on these assistants, you’ll need more sophisticated application performance monitoring (APM) software for continuous delivery. Maximize uptime and use dynamic baselining to predict abnormal behavior patterns before they compromise performance. AppDynamics is positioned to handle what’s coming next, so make sure your innovative creations don’t get left behind.

Learn More

Learn more about IoT with this eBook, “Breaking Down the Internet of Things.”

The Internet Of Things Will Generate Terabytes Of Data. What Will We Do With All Of It?

In less than 5 years, “the Internet of Things will transform the data center,” says Gartner. This transformation is predicted to trickle across industries and affect business models, how we market products and even inspire new technology developments. With a sensor on absolutely everything – from cars and houses to your family members – it goes without saying there will be some challenges with these massive amounts of data. Furthermore, there is a lot of uncertainties associated with IoT because of this data. Is it even useful? How do we use it? And, one of the more important questions, how secure is the data in the cloud anyway? Fortunately, developing management tools to hone all of this data have helped to answer several of these questions.

Data mining for faster interactions between a smart object and its user

First, it is important to understand what data mining really means. By definition, data mining, or knowledge discovery, is the process of analyzing large sets or databases of information. To put this into perspective, imagine that you have a cabin in the mountains, and you want to put sensors in this cabin to tell you the temperature every 6 hours. Now imagine you are the owner of a vacation home renting association, and these sensors are in hundreds of homes which you are responsible for overseeing. Hundreds or even thousands of homes generating data every 6 hours. A helpful blog post describes how this information gets to be useful once you can identify patterns and trends in your data, which may help you save money or uncover an issue. Comparing values against one another at different times they are collected (or at different locations) is one way to do this. As the owner of so many vacation homes, you can gain insight into why certain cabins may be too hot or too cool to identify an issue in your heating and cooling systems before your guests complain.

Second, let’s consider “real-time.” Accessing this data in real-time will make all the difference for mission critical applications. Let’s go back to the cabin example. If your cabin is not ready for winter, wouldn’t it be great to access an alert in real-time so that you can avoid a pipe bursting? IoT applications like this require real-time data. In fact, most IoT applications are not even considered to be “IoT” unless they include some kind of mobile app or dashboard not only offering real-time data, but also real-time analytics tools. It may be noteworthy to point out that “real-time” means something different in every application. In an “Emergency! Call 9-1-1!” scenario, real-time must be instantaneous – as in less than a millisecond. While other applications, such as remote tank monitoring, may take several seconds. The level of urgency will determine how much the application developer will invest in high-speed technology (whether it be cellular 2G vs. LTE or Bluetooth vs. WiFi).

IoT is changing how we analyze data

To keep up with the IoT boom, we need to make sense of person-to-smart-object interactions as fast as possible so we can learn, adjust, and continue to add value to our connected lives. Leveraging historical IoT data is key for identifying behavior patterns that may reveal ways to save money on applications, increase efficiency, and simply make our lives easier. Being able to analyze and sort data as it is being generated is no longer a vision. Huge amounts of data will be analyzed “in the cloud” or on IoT devices as events occur. IoT businesses have to adopt trends like these to stay competitive. After all, IoT isn’t just about connecting things to the internet; it’s about generating meaningful data.

Gaining actionable insights from data

With all of the connected cars, houses, watches, health monitoring devices, trackers, etc., there will be an unfathomable amount of data on the table. Now what? Because so many things are being connected to the internet, collecting insights that guide you on your next business move are key. In fact, Fabrizio Biscotti, research director at Gartner argues, “IoT deployments will generate large quantities of data that need to be processed and analyzed in real time. Processing large quantities of IoT data in real time will increase as a proportion of workloads of data centers, leaving providers facing new security, capacity and analytics challenges.” This is clear to everyone in IoT: Interpreting these terabytes and terabytes of data will be a nightmare. And doing it in a timely manner, dare I say it – in real-time – will be absolute hell. Businesses need tools to help them make smart business decisions with this IoT data. Doug Strick, Internet Application Admin at Garmin, admitted, “We knew we needed a tool that could constantly monitor our production environment, allowing us to collect historical data and trend performance over time. Also, we needed something that would give us a better view of what was going on inside the application at the code level.” Garmin is definitely not the only business out there with these needs.

Just looking at all of the data being generated from one application can be overwhelming. The daunting task of analyzing this data could take anywhere from days to weeks. Even worse, many people are stuck with tools that are cumbersome to use. This not only slows down business, but it opens the door to potential pitfalls and issues. So the questions remain, how do we relate business to performance, and how do we get that answer in a timely manner? There are some tools that exist today. For example, AppDynamics offers an analytics platform that allows users to take data from their IoT applications and manipulate it — in real time — to produce visualizations and reports. The ability to go from raw data to useful business data, and to produce a report in less than 5 minutes completely eliminates the time-consuming process of data analysis.

Being in IoT is a race, not a marathon!

That might sound backwards, but anyone in the IoT space would agree – it’s a race to productization and deployment. Understanding data and applying it to your business can take careful planning and time that you likely don’t have. Businesses are preparing themselves for the reality of IoT – or catching up to the competition who are already working with IoT driven data. That preparation will include an investment in data management tools to make the most of an IoT strategy. Harbor Research predicts that if you have connected products with no long-term data services strategy, then “you’re in the Pervasive Internet of Things booster rocket… when the booster runs out of fuel (product-centric profits), you’ll fall back to Earth. And that’s going to hurt.” Learn more about how IoT is changing how we live and take care of business, check out my previous blog post. Next time we will discuss how the Internet of Things is enhancing experiences everyday in smart cities. Stay tuned!

Internet of Things (IoT): Changing how we live and take care of business

Harvard Business Review published a blog about the Internet of Things (IoT) and markets where IoT has grown strong. Blog author, Simona Jankowski, wrote, “IoT is expected to connect 28 billion “things” to the internet by 2020, ranging from wearable devices such as smartwatches to automobiles, appliances, and industrial equipment.” That kind of development is enough to spur an evolution in how we live on a daily basis.

As of today, we are already quite connected. You can go for a run wearing your fitness tracker to record your endurance, heart rate, and overall activity. When you get home, your house leverages historical data combined with your preset preferences, to automatically adjust the temperature and get the shower going for you. Your shower shuts off, notifying your coffee maker to start brewing and you’re almost ready for your day – all thanks to recent innovations in IoT, but it doesn’t stop there. You drive to work, and your IoT-enabled dashboard in your car notifies you of some bad traffic up ahead, and directs you through an alternative route.

Enjoying how effortless some of life’s menial tasks have become, enables you to move faster in your day-to-day activities and focus on other tasks at your job. The best part is that these devices don’t require you to do much of anything at all. In fact, you may become so dependent on these, that you forget your old ways of doing things. Now, you’re more aware of your health, you live more comfortably, and you get to work a little bit sooner than you used to.

The real value of living with IoT comes from what you can share with others. Data sharing has expanded the possibilities of ways to connect with people. Not only do you get data on how much energy you save with your smart home, but you can also compare how much you save to your friends and neighbors. For businesses, data sharing opens the door to even more ways to monetize the Internet of Things.

Big Data is a buzzword thrown around a lot over the past few years. With the billions of devices that have been predicted to become connected, Big Data is about to get really, really big. “According to computer giant IBM,” as reported by the BCC, “2.5 exabytes – that’s 2.5 billion gigabytes – of data was generated every day in 2012.” For enterprise businesses, this could mean identifying ways to optimize services, cut costs, or even create new services. Take the idea of the Smart City as an example. Existing IoT companies focused on data analytics, hardware, and software are partnering to address this idea, working together to create smarter cities. Imagine if your city could give you status updates on traffic patterns, pollution, parking spaces, water, power, and light – all in real time. Access to that data could improve the economic and environmental health of the city for its entire community. Making connections, and making sense of data generated from those connections, will continue to drive these ideas not just for smart cities, but also for the utilities industry, fleet and automotive, remote monitoring for industrial plants, and so much more.

Most developers, either independent or for an enterprise business, know that monitoring these devices is crucial to ensure optimal performance of your application. With IoT specifically, leveraging third-party APIs will add to the complexity of your environment, making end-to-end visibility extremely vital. Take some advice from experienced developer, Ian Murphy. Murphy writes about the top 5 questions you should ask before using a third-party API. Among these questions, he answers on topics you must think about such as latency and uptime, as well as longevity of support for that API. There are a few other undesirable outcomes from using third party APIs, including poor user experience. Be sure to be thoughtful and thorough to make the most of your connected devices.

The Harvard Business Review concludes that those who “make the connections possible and to process the vast amounts of data” will be the real winners of IoT. However, the real winners of IoT are everyday users and adopters. The more the Internet of Things becomes more accessible to consumers, or the average Joe, the bigger its value will become. The interconnectedness of all ‘things’ will increase the complexity of application environments and introduce terabits on terabits of new data.

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