HAL 9000 -- not just in space anymore

Your phone and other devices are quickly evolving into intelligent robot assistants you can talk to

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Everywhere you look in technology today, you'll see these kinds of virtual assistants emerging. It's an idea whose time has come.

This week, a tiny startup called Zazu launched an iPhone and Android app called Zazu Mornings. The current beta app will wake you up like a conventional alarm clock and present you with a button. When you press it, the app will tell you (in a pleasant voice) the time, date and weather, and show you top headlines and what your schedule looks like. When the current app is finished, Zazu mornings will tell you the most important things happening with your friends and family ("Janet had her baby last night. It's a girl!"), update you with changing events ("Steve wants to postpone your meeting until Friday") and notify you of any other relevant information.

While it's starting with a fancy intelligent alarm clock, Zazu is planning a virtual assistant that stays with you all day, briefing you on upcoming events, telling you personal and historical information about the people you're about to meet with -- that sort of thing. The company intends to add natural voice interaction in both directions, so dealing with Zazu will be like interacting with a human personal assistant.

Automotive HAL

The fictional HAL served mainly as an interface between humans and a vehicle -- in that case, a massive interplanetary spaceship. But your car could also use one.

Audi recently introduced a HAL 9000 of sorts for all of its new car models. Called AviCoS, for Avatar-based Virtual Co-driver System, Audi's HAL was developed by researchers at Technical University Munich and Audi engineers. It functions as an in-vehicle expert about all the car's features and systems. The AviCoS system uses virtual reality and a video avatar to interact with the driver via spoken language. The system monitors what's happening with the car, but it avoids distracting the driver at inopportune moments -- during acceleration, for example.

Expert-finder HAL

A startup called Whodini opened this week. Its core technology is an artificial intelligence engine designed to find experts inside your own company, and also present your own expertise. The company's algorithms can scan through your professional activity and figure out what you're good at. It then compiles a profile that, with your approval, is made available to co-workers or to the public.

When you're working on a project and need some advice, assistance or additional manpower, you simply search the Whodini system like you would Google. The algorithms match your search to the people who can help you.

Whodini doesn't have fancy voice interaction. But the idea of using software to sift through massive amounts of data and then make sense of that data and make suggestions based on it is the secret sauce behind this product -- and it's the basic functionality of the many HALs that we'll meet in the coming months and years.

The interesting thing about this virtual assistant idea is that it won't just come to you as a discrete application or service. It will be baked into the products and services you're already using. Your iPhone will become one. Your search engine will too. Even your car.

It all sounds pretty cool. But there are potential downsides. Virtual assistants will violate your privacy, make decisions for you and potentially make mistakes on your behalf. As we come to rely upon them, we'll miss important facts and events when the software errs.

Of course, such problems can only be attributable to human error. At least that's what your phone will tell you.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and tech culture. Contact and learn more about Mike at Elgan.com, or subscribe to his free e-mail newsletter, Mike's List.

Copyright © 2011 IDG Communications, Inc.

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