Siri, have you heard about Viv?

Who will you talk to this holiday season? Sure, lots of friends and relatives will be in the mix, but how about good old Siri, that helpful voice on your iPhone? She tells us how to go where, what to eat, where to find what and all sorts of useful things. And, when we’re bored, we try to confound her with existential questions like “What is the meaning of life?” (One of her replies is: “I Kant answer that. Ha ha!”)

But now Siri has competition from an artificial intelligence platform wench name Viv (in homage to the Latin verb “vivere,” which means “to live.”) Viv’s spokeshuman/creator, Dag Kittlaus, introduced her in a YouTube video in May ( On Oct. 6, Samsung announced they had purchased the rights to her. How will this impact our lives and our psyches?

Samsung (and third party app creators everywhere) expect this to be a big deal. Viv will jumpstart the age of “conversational commerce,” where you can ask your devices rather complicated questions — or give commands — and get accurate answers and quick results. In Kittlaus’ YouTube announcement, for example, he directed Viv to “Send Adam $20 for the drinks last night,” and she proceeded to do so. How do a collection of silicon chips, interconnected servers and programs manage to do this stuff — and just how scary is it?

Here are some of the problems these devices solve:
• Language and word recognition
• Distinguishing homophones like byte and bite in the context in which you are using it and/or recognizing specialized jargon and vocabulary
• Recognizing who you are, who you know and where you are
• Deciding what resources to use, connecting to those resources and responding to you with the correct text or audio with which to act.

An article written in 2013 by Marco Tabini explained how Apple designed Siri to work. The user’s voice is converted into an audio file that is sent to Apple’s servers for processing. That processing involves transforming the audio information into the form of a computer program that allows the computer to perform some action based on the question or command. A voice recognition firm called Nuance converts the output of that action back into text that the user can read.

Siri can be successful understanding many words and commands because Apple has the user’s personal information and contacts from when they subscribed to whatever service or device they are using. GPS technology, when the user gives permission, allows Apple to track your location. Apple programs Siri with terms required to fulfill tasks that it supports, based on the context in which the user presents them. However, Siri can’t work with other commercial interests or devices that would have their own specialized functions and vocabulary.

Apple’s programmers did have fun coming up with various answers to questions they anticipated mischievous users would come up with. For example, if you ask Siri “Do you have a boyfriend?” she may say “Why? So we can get ice cream together, and listen to music, and travel across galaxies, only to have it end in slammed doors, heartbreak and loneliness? Sure, where do I sign up?” Or, if you tell Siri that you are naked, she may say “And here I thought you loved me for my mind. Sigh.” I have a brother-in-law who Siri once called rude. I have no idea what he asked.

Viv reaches another level. According to Samsung’s press release, “Viv’s platform allows developers to teach the system how to create new applications or to use existing applications, building an open ecosystem of intelligence that is greater than the sum of its parts and gets smarter every day.” As Kittlaus describes it in his YouTube video, when the user gives a command like “Send Adam $20 for the drinks last night,” Viv essentially writes itself a program that involves identifying the user and his friend, Adam, through contact lists, accessing necessary addresses, bank accounts or money-transfer tools like PayPal, and initiates the necessary actions. Kittlaus claims that, “Samsung offers us a unique opportunity to deliver a single conversational interface to the world’s apps and services across a diverse range of products, at a global scale.”

No one says whether Viv can answer the question “What is the meaning of life?” but Kittlaus on the web site says that Viv can “breathe life into inanimate objects of our life through conversation.”

Perhaps it would be wise — with machines as well as people — to be careful about what we say. And, if Viv — or whatever comes after her — develops their very own sense of humor, that’s when the joke could be on us.

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