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02/08/2010

How a virtual assistant could change your life

How often have you wished that you had people? I've always wanted people, so that I could get my people to talk to other people's people, and make important things happen. Like film deals, and book contracts. I bet Brad Pitt has people. And I bet Stephen King has people. That's why they're successful A-list celebrities, while I still have problems getting served at the local dive bar and never even have enough time to manage my woefully overdrawn bank account. It's just not fair, I tell you. Now, though, we might all be able to have people - or at least, a virtual equivalent thereof.

Siri, a new application for the iPhone, acts like a digital assistant. You can ask it a range of things, such as:

"Where's the nearest gas station?"
"Find me a place near my office that offers east Indian food"
"What PG-13 movies are playing this afternoon?"

Siri works by interpreting your speech into a search, searching a range of online information sources, and collating the results for you, and it represents the re-emergence of something that has been tried before, but with limited success. This idea of intelligent agents, that go out onto the Internet and do things on your behalf, has been around for a while, but it hasn't really taken off on a consumer level because it was pretty difficult to accomplish.

In the past, most of the information sources were closed. Now, they've been created with computers in mind in addition to people, meaning that a computer can ask them things just as easily as a person can - if not more easily.

This, mark my words, is the future of search technology. Right now, search engines tend to return a lot of fairly uncoordinated results. You'd have to trawl through a few pages to find all of the PG-13 movies playing in your area, or to track down all of the romantic Italian restaurants in your neighbourhood. It's doable, using sites like Cinemaclock or Urbanspoon, but these are specialised sites, and you'd have to go to a different place depending on your search. And these, along with sites like Yelp, but still require you to do some work.

In the future, search agents like this will hopefully be able to go even further, and book your tickets for you, perhaps even organising multi-component events. "Book me a romantic valentine's day supper for two, and find me an appropriate movie nearby". It might go out and find you a table, and then understand what an appropriate movie for Valentine's day might be (hint: romantic comedy - good. Texas Chainsaw Massacre - bad). And it might be able to automatically schedule times so that one event falls nicely after another, and you don't have to rush. Maybe it could get a cab to pick you up as well.

All of this is possible, and we're getting there, slowly. Sadly, Siri isn't available on the Canadian iPhone app store - yet. But perhaps their people will talk to our people and it'll get here soon.

And actually, I've been telling white lies here for artistic licence. I *do* have people. Well, alright - a person. I've never met her, but because she has a real life human brain, she goes far beyond what Siri can do, and she has changed my working life in significant ways. I'll tell you more about her tomorrow, and about how you could use technology to help you have real life people, too.

Danny Bradbury, MSN Tech & Gadgets

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Danny BradburyDanny Bradbury

Danny Bradbury is a technology journalist with 20 years' experience. He writes regularly for publications including the Guardian, the Financial Times, the Financial Post, and Backbone magazine. Danny also writes and directs documentaries.

Maurice CachoMaurice Cacho

Maurice Cacho is a Toronto-based journalist mixing his love for tech with a passion for news. He's also CP24's Web Journalist and appears daily on CP24 Breakfast and weekly on the channel's tech show, Webnation, discussing tech news and trends.

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