Intelligent Devices, Services Take Center Stage at SXSW

One of the most noticeable, emergent themes at this year’s SXSW Interactive conference is a new frontier for the user experience, with numerous panels and product-launches focused on revolutionizing the ways people interact with their devices. At a panel Monday afternoon in the Austin Convention Center, leaders in the field of artificial intelligence gave a glimpse into the future of consumer relationships with increasingly intelligent gadgets.
 
“I tend to think of AI as going beyond the obvious,” said Nadav Gur, co-founder and CEO of Desti, a smart travel and search app. “If devices can get better at knowing what the user means and in what context, that to me is artificial intelligence.”
 
Lauren Goode, reporter and columnist for the technology news site AllThingsD.com, moderated the panel, which, in addition to Gur, included Raj Singh, founder of smart calendar app-maker Tempo AI and Dror Oren, executive director of the Stanford Research Institute (SRI), which in addition to spinning out Desti and Tempo, also incubated Apple’s Siri software in its earliest iteration.
 
In the future, Gur said he sees search and recommendation engines like those offered by Google and Amazon moving away from a model where they respond to queries with a list of links. Instead, he said these services will be able to provide specific answers tailored to each user.
 
“If you told someone 15 years ago that in the future they would be able to ask a computer anything they wanted by typing into a little box, I don’t think they would have expected the computer to respond with a list of blue links,” he said. “They want to get past the list and exactly to what they’re looking for.”
 
Singh, whose Tempo calendar will automatically include important context details like contact information and location for each scheduled event, said the main obstacle to improving AI today is time.
 
“The only way these systems get better is through user testing, and that takes a year, two years,” he said. “It’s not a problem you can just throw money at.”
 
Of all the companies currently innovating with AI-based solutions, Singh said Google is the best-positioned to create services that users will find useful.
 
“Google has your search history, and your search history is basically a history of intent,” he said.
 
Apple’s Siri personal assistant software for iPhone, the most prominent recent example of consumer-facing artificial intelligence, was a frequent punching bag with the panel. Oren said he believed Siri, which has been criticized for not being as useful as advertised, suffered from being tasked with too many responsibilities.
 
“At SRI, we don’t believe there should be a single, one-size fits all, AI assistant software,” he said. “You can go broad or you can go deep with these services. But the really smart dialogue happens when you go deep and specialize.”
 
Singh concurred.
 
“The trend we’re seeing is AI being used to improve a wide variety of services, whether its travel or scheduling or what have you,” he said. “In the future ‘smart’ will be a layer in all apps.”