Next-gen Virtual Personal Assistants on the Horizon

21st Century Skills

Next-gen Virtual Personal Assistants on the Horizon

Sep 5, 2012

WATSON AND LOLA: If you took the time to read some of this edu-SciFi goodness from Mr. Peter Wailes, you may recall the bit where one student commands the artificial intelligence: “Delia, introduce this creature to the Australian outback, around 30 million years ago. Follow its projected evolution forward.” It’s easy to lose our collective mind imagining this kind of technology in today’s classrooms, but a new announcement from International Business Machines (much more hip than that grey hair-inducing acronym IBM) reminds us just how quickly the lines between science fiction and reality tend to disappear.

The IT juggernaut has plans for a third coming of Mr. Thomas J. Watson; this time around in an energy-efficient version that can run on smartphones. Big Blue’s VP of Innovation, Mr. Bernie Meyerson, imagines a farmer in the field asking Watson: “'When should I plant my corn?'" and receiving a response based upon all available farming data for that region, he says. Watson stands poised to answer complex questions and is being marketed to corporations before consumers. But it seems that the technology for Mr. Waile’s ‘Delia’ will be as commonplace as Apple's lovable lady in the next three to five years.

In the meantime, Stanford Research Institute (the famed R&D institute that developed Siri) and Spanish financial institution BBVA, have been quietly working on Lola, a virtual personal assistant capable of understanding intent, reason, and most importantly, remembering. (Siri's more advanced sister, without the memory loss?)

So far all Lola knows is about banks as she is currently working in field trials of customer service simulations. But here's a teaser: Frank Meehan, current CEO of Kuato Games, and who sat on the board of Siri Inc. before it was purchased by Apple, hints that his studio will feature some of Lola's VPA technology in his upcoming iPad educational game, out later this year.

What this announcement says for the future of education is both exciting and terrifying. The democratization of information is providing new levels of access for learners across many backgrounds and levels of competence, but there are no best practices for navigating or directing learners through the data deluge. Today we know what to ask Siri when we need a quality cup of joe (and we’ll be able to ask more with the upcoming iOS 6 release), but what about tomorrow? Will we be ready to ask questions that can change our lives for the better?

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