Someday you will be able to ask your browser or smart phone open questions like "Where should I take my wife for a good movie and dinner?" Your browser would consult its intelligence of what you and she like and dislike, take into account your current location, and then suggest the right movies and restaurants. If you are the first to deliver this, your startup might be the next Google!
This has been a long-time dream of Tim Berners-Lee, the man who (really) invented the World Wide Web. He calls his dream the ‘Semantic Web’ (or Web 3.0), meaning it understands user context. He and many other experts believe that the Semantic Web will act more like a personal assistant than a search engine.
If you add the next generation of natural language processing (NLP), you will be able to ask Google Voice Search or Apple Siri the questions right through your smart phone. The system will compile your interests in your local storage, so the more you use it, the more it learns about you, and the more relevant will be the results.
These virtual personal assistants still have some work to do to meet the key attributes that we have grown to expect from a live personal assistant. Here is an entry-level benchmark for the new software personal assistants:
Simple and intuitive communication. A personal assistant must be able to understand intent and context, as well as learn common acronyms and shorthand phrases, whether written or spoken. Siri is a step in this direction, but still has very limited learning and context sensing abilities.
Technology environment savvy. A good assistant know how get things done efficiently, recognizing user hardware and software limitations. In today’s mobile hardware environment, that means able to set up meetings, convert text messages to voice, find contact information quickly, and search the Web intelligently for outside info.
Memorable personality. Every personal assistant has to deal with a variety of moods and people every day. This requires a pleasant, outgoing personality, with politeness and respect always. They must also be able to balance courtesy with assertiveness when necessary to insulate you from unwanted solicitation and other distractions.
Good organizational skills. A personal assistant must be highly organized and detail-oriented. That means total handling of the calendar, scheduling appointments, taking calls, logging messages, screening e-mail and doing other duties with some sense of priority and problem-solving.
I believe the current major drive to mobile devices and apps has slowed the progress toward this new semantic environment, but it’s coming. Of course, many are still fighting it as well, due to privacy concerns. In my view, the increasing consumer demand for personal marketing and personal assistants will soon overcome paranoia, and reasonable boundaries will emerge.
There are already many examples of startups edging into this space. On the basic search engine front, WolframAlpha is an amazing computational engine often used by Siri, which creates intelligent results, graphs, and reports from any natural language question. But we are a long way from agents that can do full natural language processing from voice and think on their own.
Google Voice Search is a tiny step in that direction. A bigger step is a recent personal assistant startup, Maluuba, an Android-based Siri competitor, who just unveiled a new platform to provide app developers with a natural language processing API. The new Dragon Mobile Assistant is fully location-aware and offers several additional proactive assistant features
Current advertising and public relations startups are already poised along these lines, all the way from clothes shopping, art galleries, online advertising, to managing press releases. In some ways, these aren't that different from the old Amazon.com "recommendation engine," which suggests new products based on your surfing and buying habits, but they go much further.
Just think of the fertile ground all this opens for startups! If you’re looking for that ‘million dollar idea’ to build a plan around, here is your chance. But don’t wait too long, because the din for the Semantic Web is getting louder and louder. Catch the wave soon or it will pass you by!