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Meet Viv, A More Complex Siri


Today a Silicon Valley company called Viv Labs will unveil technology it's been working on secretly for a couple of years. Their goal is to create artificial intelligence in the computer cloud that we can access with our phones and computers. They call this a global brain. What makes it particular interesting is who these developers are.

The team at Viv Labs includes one of the creators of IBM's Watson, the computer that beat humans on the game show "Jeopardy," as well as key inventors of Siri, the voice-activated personal assistant on Apple's iPhone. One way to think of Viv is an updated Siri. In a new article in Wired magazine, the writer Steven Levy profiles Viv and joined us to talk about it.

INSKEEP: Siri was quite a leap forward as far as consumer technology goes, but you begin by pointing out that it wasn't such a huge leap as it seemed at the time. What is it that Siri can't do that people would like it to do?

STEVEN LEVY: Right. Well, Siri, of course, was fantastic at answering certain kind of questions. But what it couldn't do is complete a lot of actions that you wanted to do and you could do with your iPhone there. So it was a little frustrating that all the things you do with your iPhone using all the different apps, you couldn't do with one voice interface - be it Siri or anything else.

INSKEEP: What are you talking about? What kind of complex actions?

LEVY: The one we use in the story is I want to buy a cheap bottle of wine on the way to my brother's house that goes well with lasagna. So what Viv is going to be able to do is break down that request and then instantly write programs - it actually writes code - to connect the different databases.

So for instance, it might have a database of wine recommendations that goes with a recipe database and figure out what kind of wine would go well with the ingredients in lasagna. Then it would figure out who your brother is. It would map the route out and then compare it to a database of wine stores nearby. And then maybe even go into the inventory of those wine stores and find out if the right bottle is at one of those wine stores.

INSKEEP: Well, that's a pretty complicated thing isn't it? That isn't just find the number of my friend and dial it. This is doing several things and making a number of judgments along the way.

LEVY: That's right. And it relies on the service having access to a whole lot of information and connections to databases and services. And the creators of Viv call it a giant global brain that's going to accumulate all this different information and have the ability to, you know, perform all these tasks.

INSKEEP: But I guess the first question to ask is whether you know for sure that Viv, this new product being announced, can actually do all that?

LEVY: Well, that is the question. And in their lab, they could do a lot of requests. I've watched them do that in the prototype version there. I think the big challenge really is going to be - able to bring all these other businesses in and get them interested in it. And the second big challenge is to get a position of prominence on people's devices there. You know, Apple and Google, they have big advantages over a company like Viv trying to do this. And they have the phone systems. You can access them with one button. Microsoft has its own phone there. So they're going to be outsiders coming in there basically trying to be one of the dominant applications on your device.

INSKEEP: So would Viv search information that is available on your phone, which may be an awful lot in many cases, or would it go well beyond that? For example, if my brother's address is not in the phone, would it go hunting down my brother using various databases that are available outside?

LEVY: Well, that is the idea. It's something that doesn't access just your phone, but it accesses a vast knowledge of information outside the phone - in the cloud, so to speak.

INSKEEP: Anything creepy about all this?

LEVY: Well, I kept asking them, you know, like, about the privacy issues there. They said basically, they're just one of a lot of services that they feel will offer a favorable trade-off to people who want to share their information with the service.

INSKEEP: Yeah, let's talk about that. It's interesting to think about the fact that Facebook, of course, is a place where people exchange all kinds of information. And then it emerges that the company itself is able to manage that information and use it to sell you stuff or actually sell you to advertisers. The same thing with Google. The same thing with Amazon. Whoever controls Viv may have an entirely new layer of information about me and my habits and my travel patterns and who knows what else.

LEVY: That's true. I think the obvious way that they say they're going to make money is not so much so serving you ads, but in taking a cut of all the transactions you're going to make. So that bottle of wine I buy on my way to my brother's house - Viv is going to get a cut of that price I pay for the wine.

INSKEEP: Is their goal to end up with a situation where you basically have one app on your phone, and you just ask it to do everything?

LEVY: You know, I've been covering technology for long time, and I think that's what it's boiling down to. Whether it's Google or Facebook or Amazon or Microsoft - all these companies want to be your go-to place for pretty much all your activities.

INSKEEP: Steven Levy of Wired, thanks very much.

LEVY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.