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 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.

How curation automation is going to disrupt content consumption

The best content curators have extensive topic knowledge and a knack for reader interests and preferences. That sounds like something only a living, breathing human can do, right? While that’s largely the case today, I believe technology will drive the biggest advancements in content curation tomorrow.

Narrative Science is a terrific example. I met Kris Hammond of Narrative Science a few years ago when he spoke at a Tools of Change conference I helped produce. If you’re not familiar with them, Narrative Science is one of those companies that develop tools to automate story writing.

You may have read a computer-generated article or two this week and never even realized it. Think you can tell the difference between human- and auto-generated content? Stick around and take the quiz at the end of this article… 

Data is at the heart of the stories generated by Narrative Science but what exactly is “data”? In the current model, data typically consists of numbers, tables and other highly structured information. For example, the narrative summary of last night’s baseball game could be auto-generated using nothing more than the game’s box score, the data from the event.

As platforms like Narrative Science’s evolve, so will the definition of data. 

Last week I wrote an article about why all-you-can-read subscriptions need curation. We’re drowning in a sea of content and we need better tools to help us uncover and consume the must-read content. There’s a big difference between what you and I consider must-read though and that’s where the curation element comes into play.

A number of industry pundits criticized my thinking and pointed out the high cost of this sort of curation. I agree. Curation today almost always requires human intervention. But what happens when that’s no longer the case?

What happens when an application is able to rewrite and summarize the sea of daily content that’s most important to you? What happens when this tool, which knows your interests, your job responsibilities, etc., is able to deliver a fully-automated Cliffs Notes version of everything you need to read that day?

I think that will be a game-changer and will become an extremely important, real world application for artificial intelligence. Will it put writers out of business? No, not necessarily. After all, most of the original content still has to be written by someone. But it will help amplify the content that needs to be read, enabling it to rise above all the noise that surrounds it. 

Still think this is nothing more than sci-fi and wishful thinking? Take this short quiz and see if you can figure out whether each of these excerpts were human-generated or computer-generated.

PopSci Genius Guide: Next Gen Magazine? Sort of.

Popsci I was all excited when I read this terrific article about Popular Science's venture into what they're calling "the next generation of digital magazines."  Then I checked out the product and was extremely disappointed.

Here are some of the article excerpts that got my attention:

And make no mistake -- this isn't your typical "interactive" digital magazine with an animation here or a video there.

PopSci has effectively demonstrated the ability to create a multilayered (emphasis mine), interactive experience for readers without overwhelming them.

Readers choose which aspects they want to activate and when.

Our goal was not to create a web site with the Genius Guide, and not to re-create Popular Science magazine with it...but to create a totally new product...that engages and enthralls the reader.

How much can I pay to get this outstanding product?  Sign me up!

OK, now take a look at the product the interview describes.  I found it to be ho-hum and pretty much what they say it's not (your typical interactive digital magazine with an animation here and a video there).  To be fair, I remember seeing a couple of animations but no videos.

I couldn't help think the PopSci Genius Guide was built by a team with a magazine mentality.  Why do they feel compelled to render the product using the virtual dimensions of a print magazine?  That results in so much wasted space, leaving my screen mostly blank when I'm flipping through it.  Why not think about the user experience and fully utilize the available surface area rather than limit yourself by forcing the product to look and feel like a print magazine on a computer screen?  Btw, if you follow this advice you wind up with something that looks more like a web page than a print magazine page, and that's OK!

Why does every "digital magazine" designer feel compelled to animate the page-turning process?!  Who cares?  That's not a critical element of the print magazine user experience that absolutely must be preserved in the digital product.

Also, while they're rethinking and better utilizing the available space on the computer screen, how about considering the small screen as well?  I'm talking specifically about the iPhone.  I looked and there's no Popular Science iPhone app.  Talk about a missed opportunity.

I recently signed up for a deeply discounted print subscription to Popular Science ($6 for 12 issues via Amazon) and I'm hooked.  If they offer me an iPhone app subscription at 99-cents/month I'll send them more money.  That's not much but it's a lot more than I'd be willing to pay for the current implementation of the PopSci Genius Guides.

"Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman!", by Richard Feynman

FeynmanMy son recommended I read this one and I'm glad he did.  Surely You're Joking, Mr. Feynman! offers a fascinating look into the life of one of the brightest minds of the past 100 years.  Richard Feynman is probably best known for his involvement in the Manhattan Project and for winning the Nobel Prize in Physics but this book is more about who he was as a person.

Unlike some dull and dreary book on the science shelf, Surely You're Joking is an extremely enjoyable read, thanks in large part to Feynman's conversational writing style.  The author's curiosity also shines through and it's easy to see why he was such a brilliant scientist; he clearly was one of those kids who spent a lot of time taking things apart and learning how they worked.

This book is a timeless adventure through the highlights of Feynman's adult life.  It's filled with stories of his time at Cornell, CalTech and of course, his work on the bomb.  Although you won't learn much about science from this book, it will definitely give you a better appreciation for the man and what made him tick.

My Favorite Book

Short_historyI read it a few years ago and it really sparked a renewed interest in science for me.  I'm talking about Bill Bryson's A Short History of Nearly Everything.  What an incredible book.  It's my very favorite book of all time.  If you haven't read it yet grab a copy as soon as you can...and get another one as a gift for a friend!

Speaking of which, oldest and best friend from my younger days in Pittsburgh recently told me he just read Bryson's latest hit, The Life and Times of the Thunderbolt Kid and loved every bit of it.  I just got my copy and can't wait to dig into it.

So what's your favorite book?  What's the one book you'd wish for if you were stranded on a desert island?  Bryson's is my choice.