Last week, a small company called Viv introduced artificially intelligent software that the company promises will forever change the way we interact with technology. It’s a big promise, with some formidable obstacles.
By now most people have a reasonable understanding of how artificial intelligence works. The big idea is that software can intelligently determine the best courses of action in any given context, whether in the physical or virtual world.
An example: When you ask Siri on an iPhone to book a flight, she’ll give you a snarky retort if she doesn't understand your request or can't complete the task. Sometimes she’ll point you to a place or app where you can get a ticket. By design, there is something between you and the ticket. That thing is known in software circles as "friction."
What Viv wants to do is remove that friction. In the example of searching for a flight with Siri, a Viv interaction might begin with the software searching travel aggregation sites like Expedia (EXPE) for flights, then searching SeatGuru.com for available seats on the best flight given your preferences, which it learned through past interaction.
Seconds later, Viv will ask you if you want to book that seat. Respond “yes” and, just like that, you’ve obtained your ideal seat on a flight without opening an application, making a phone call, typing or clicking. Viv does all of this by contextually processing your request, then seamlessly executing software code in the cloud to access open application program interfaces all over the web. Note that the hard work is done in the cloud, not on your device.
If that sounds exciting and at the same time completely disruptive, it is. And the tech elites have reason to worry because their business models actually depend on friction. Google built an Internet juggernaut based on search, finding needles in a haystack of data. By design, it wants searchers to encounter friction before getting the information they desire. Home Depot, Geico and Amazon pay Google handsomely to ensure searchers see their ads atop search results and not someone else's.
At Apple, the services business -- the only part of its empire still growing -- was built on the App Store. Apple wants users to have to download an application to get what they want because it gets a cut of the revenues. In other words: Friction is its lifeblood.
Facebook, Microsoft and Amazon, the other major players in the artificial intelligence arms race, have friction at the center of their business models too. Facebook wants you stuck inside its network. Amazon wants you to buy stuff online but only at their store, and everything they do is to that end. Can you imagine what would happen if there was no more friction? It would be pandemonium Silicon Valley.
But Viv is not guaranteed to prevail because, from a technical perspective, what it’s attempting to do is so hard and so revolutionary. In fact, the founders of Viv, AI wunderkinds Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer, were doing many of the same things with open APIs when they came up with Siri almost a decade ago. The original software could buy tickets, reserve tables at restaurants and even summon taxis. Yeah, it was that long ago, when taxis were still a thing.
All of those groundbreaking features were immediately axed when Apple bought Siri and grafted it into its operating system in 2011. The move was all about building in a new profit center for Apple. And there’s the rub. Other companies are capable of replicating what Viv wants to do, but the desire is scant for obvious reasons. To succeed, Viv will need to blaze a path to devices, homes and cars where current tech elites have already set out barriers.
Innovation is about removing friction, the stuff between us and what we want. That’s it. That’s what makes something truly disruptive. In most cases, stuff between us and what we want is put there by design to create a profit benefit.
Viv has a terrific pedigree and a great idea. If Viv’s creators can execute it, they will forever change the way we interact with technology. But will the matrix allow it to flourish? Open question for now, but watch this space for future updates.
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