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Here’s how Siri, Alexa and other IPAs will revolutionize publishing

Information-1183331_1280For the past several years I’ve been writing about how containers such as books, newspapers and magazines are slowly fading away. They’ll certainly be around for many years but their relevance will slip into the background as personalized, digital content streams become more important.

The more I think about the future the more I believe two other trends will have an even more significant impact on reading, learning and engaging with content: voice user interfaces (VUI) and artificial intelligence (AI).

Today Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa are mostly perceived as gimmicks. Tomorrow these intelligent personal assistants (IPAs) will become the gateway to a whole new way of consuming and interacting with content.

A few weeks ago I wrote about how these IPAs need to break free of their current apps and devices, becoming platforms to a broader set of content services. It’s great that Amazon’s Alexa can now be experimented with via the Echoism.io site, but how long will it take before these services realize their full potential, not simply serve as a way to ask whether or not it will rain tomorrow?

Ultimately, I’m convinced these IPAs will enable us to have conversations with the most knowledgeable experts we’ll never meet and who really don’t even exist. Think about that for a moment.

It’s one thing to ask Alexa questions like, “what was the score of last night’s Cubs game?” or “what was Muhammad Ali’s most famous quote?”. It’s entirely different when you treat the device like a trusted advisor or teacher by asking things like, “who was the best Cubs player of all time?”; in this case, the response can’t simply be retrieved from a reference guide as it requires a highly subjective answer based on gathering and interpretation of facts as well as a healthy dose of conjecture. That’s where AI comes into play.

The model I’m describing likely requires AI capabilities that are more powerful than today’s. In 2016 company like Narrative Science can take a baseball game box score and turn it into a two-paragraph newspaper summary; tomorrow these AI platforms will need to be able to tell more of the story as well as answer questions like, “how did Anthony Rizzo get to second base in the fourth inning?”.

Let’s apply this to a more interesting, lengthier use-case. Maybe I want to learn about electricity and electrical wiring for a home project I’m working on. I want to do this all via voice and audio during my daily commute to and from work. Today I could turn to a variety of YouTube videos, websites and books. Tomorrow I want to simply start with this request: Tell me the essentials of electricity.

The IPA then dives right into a tutorial, perhaps taken from one of those resources noted earlier (e.g., books, websites, etc.) The session is highly interactive though. Every so often I might ask a clarifying question like, “what’s the difference between the black wire and the white wire?” or “is a wire nut OK on its own or should I also wrap the connection in electrical tape?”, and the assistant provides the answers then returns to the lesson.

To contrast, in today’s world we’re used to thinking in terms of the document model and how search results are simply an intermediate step. That step might just be one of many the user has to proceed through to ultimately get their answer. In the IPA world of tomorrow the experience needs to feel more like a conversation with an old friend or instructor; the IPA selects the best path rather than relying on you to find the needle in the search results haystack.

All of this dialog presumably will go through the Amazon’s and Google’s of the world and the answers come back through those same gatekeepers as well. But ultimately consumers will insist on the dialog and answers coming from other trusted brands and sources. So one day I might start that electricity session by saying something like, “take me to the Home Depot channel” and then I can have my dialog within an ecosystem of more reliable, highly relevant content and responses.

In order to make this giant leap the content must either be richly tagged, thoroughly analyzed by a powerful AI platform or a little bit of both. Either way I’m excited about the new opportunities it represents.


Michael Covington

Digital personal assistants are definitely in our future, although I cannot envision a future where AI replaces our need for story. Who knows though, I mean self-driving cars are a soon-reality that I'm looking forward to and never would have thought would be a real possibility. However for our family assistive technologies take on increasing importance since my wife has lost all functional vision. Technology may soon deliver bionic eyes that can cure my wife's eye condition as reported this week: http://www.albanydailystar.com/health/new-bionic-eye-transplant-returned-limited-view-to-blind-lady-pasadena-technology-time-13743.html

David Fessenden

I found one statement of yours especially significant: "The IPA then dives right into a tutorial, perhaps taken from one of those resources noted earlier (e.g., books, websites, etc.) . . ." If these "resources" no longer exist, as you suggest, how will an IPA access them?

If these resources "fade away," it will be because authors will get tired of giving their content away (or, more accurately, having it stolen) instead of getting paid for it.

Joe Wikert

Michael, I think your self-driving cars analogy is a good one to consider. We're closer to that stage than most people realize and I doubt many people would have guessed that would be the case five years ago. The story doesn't go away in the model I'm describing. The model is less useful in the fiction world but the stories that need to be told in in the non-fiction space, including things like "here's how such-and-such is accomplished", are just as useful in the model I outlined. Just look at that Narrative Science example I also provided; they're able to spin up a story based on nothing more than names and numbers in a box score.

David, I didn't say books and other containers will be totally eliminated. In fact, I noted that they'll fade into the background but they'll still be around for many years (see my opening paragraph in the original article).

Mike Cryer

The problem I have with interacting with a computer interface verbally is speed. If I'm asking questions about a specific thing then Google is pretty quick, the searches can be easily qualified and the information obtained quickly, even by speed reading. Even if AI improves immeasurably then I can still see getting dragged into blind alleyways in the dialogue or even downright arguments!

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