The pitfalls and oddities of our interactions with Siri are the brunt of many well-documented jokes and groans. (No, Siri, giving me directions to Philadelphia isn't going to help me quit smoking.) When we last wrote about Siri's permanent state of being lost in translation, many of you shared your own personal gripes about her inability to understand.
But before Siri and the rise of other speech-to-text-based virtual assistants, such as Google's Voice Search and Microsoft's Speech, we used real humans to do our bidding. And they'd usually find a way to get them done, no matter how complicated, far-fetched, or downright ridiculous the requests. One big benefit of using humans? You weren't nearly as likely to have your assistant tell you, "From now on, I'll call you 'Taxi.' Okay?" when you told them to call you a cab.
A new virtual assistant service called Sivi is trying to pick up the slack where Siri falls short with its new web- and mobile-based personal concierge system, which attempts to bridge the translation gap by having a fleet of human operators carry out the tasks virtual assistants try to complete with artificial intelligence.
"Speech-to-text technology is just terrible," says founder Nicholas Seet. "You’re busy and trying to do stuff but you're spending half the time correcting what your phone thinks you said. It’s negative progress."
With Sivi, you can call, email, or visit the website to make any request you can think of. As soon as your request goes through, Sivi sources it out to an employee of an existing, U.S.-based online assistant services company, who will try to email or text you back a prompt and satisfactory answer.
Knowing a human is answering you on the other end opens the door to requests a Siri-type virtual assistant might find difficult. (Just ask the good folks over at TaskRabbit.) That could range from the practical ("I locked my keys in my car. What do I do?") to the whimsical ("I'm looking for a magic set to get my nephew for his birthday") to the truly bizarre ("I need to find a way to connect to Pitbull [the music artist][/the]. Are there any connections you might have to him?"). But no matter how oddball the request, the idea is you can ask Sivi once and not have to worry about whether it's going to know you want to connect with Pitbull the Cuban rapper, not a dog.
"The requests are all over the map, but the commonality is people are very busy," says founder Nicholas Seet on what he's observed during Sivi's beta testing. "They don’t want to be mucking around with 10 blue links that Google gives you and they don’t want to be asked more questions for more detail. They just want the thing done."
In fact, Seet, an entrepreneur whose video advertising company Auditude was acquired by Adobe last year for reportedly more than $100 million, thinks Sivi will provide enough value in the amount of time it saves users that he's charging $5 per request. Seet says the value of Sivi isn't in skilled labor so much as time saved—any request you're going to put in will most likely be because you want to save yourself some time and trouble, not because you're actually incapable of doing it yourself.
When you make your first few requests on Sivi, the person on the other end might initially need to know certain details about you, such as your gender, or your price range if you've requested a particular item. Sivi will automatically create a profile for you that tracks what you've asked before, so each time you make a new request, the concierge at hand will have more information about you to work with.
In its current iteration, Sivi sources human assistants from a professional organization based in the U.S. Seet said he had experimented with outsourced labor from workers based in Singapore and India, but he found there was always something "just a little bit off."
"When somebody says, 'I'm looking for a great present for my child,' having the ability to decide what constitutes a fun thing for an American 5-year-old is just a cultural idiosyncrasy that requires a general awareness," he says.
Not to mention a human labor-based model isn't particularly scalable. Which is why Seet says In the future, Sivi will be powered by a crowdsourcing model. He says his ideal version of Sivi is a hybrid of human labor built on top of a robust artificial intelligence system. The robots would be able to do most of the gruntwork of searching and recommending answers that human concierges could then appraise, finesse, and deliver to the user in just a few clicks.
Ultimately, Seet says he sees a potentially huge market opportunity for Sivi to integrate with and improve upon her digital sister, Siri.
"Right now, you can ask Siri to find you the nearest FedEx, but you can't schedule a pickup. Similarly, you can find a pizza place, but you can’t order a pizza. With Sivi, you can," he says. "If we can make Siri more useful, that could be of huge value to Apple. And to ourselves, of course."
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[Image: Flickr user Robert S. Digby]