A few years ago, I reached a breaking point. A co-worker responded to a scheduling question by asking me to review her Excel spreadsheet of availability--all 162 columns of it. As I stared into that abyss, I realized I was facing a classic modern-day quandary: Too many of our tools make us only busier, and far less productive.
But then, in 2014, I saw the first wave of mobile virtual assistants. My favorite--Emu--was basically a wildly accurate auto-complete for my intentions. At first glance, Emu looked like any standard text-messaging app. In reality, it was monitoring my conversations as they unfolded in real time. One night I texted my sister to see if she wanted to see a movie. Then Emu immediately used its geolocation capabilities to deduce where we were, directed us to a nearby theater, and checked our calendars to see what times would work. Then it recommended a few movies we might like--and cued up previews for us to watch. When my sister texted me her choice, Emu searched for available tickets and offered to buy them. If we'd wanted, Emu would have found a restaurant that suited both our tastes, and made a dinner reservation for us, too.
Who needs a spreadsheet to keep track of your life when you can set up a night on the town with a simple text message?
Don't look for Emu in the app store: Google bought it a few months after it launched, no doubt hoping to integrate the technology into future offerings. A similar fate befell other virtual assistants that debuted around that time: Yahoo acquired Donna, Apple bought Cue, and Amazon picked up Evi. (Microsoft was the only big player not to buy a virtual-assistant startup in 2013 or 2014, because it was hard at work getting Cortana, its homegrown assistant, ready for the Windows phone.)
The good news, according to what I've learned from product teams throughout the tech industry, is that a new wave of virtual assistants will surface this year.
One way to get started today is with Google's virtual assistant Google Now. In February, Google opened up its platform to draw on information from non-Google sources. In some cases, you can already remote-start your car with it, and time-pressed business owners can get Google Now reminders to buy needed office supplies when they find themselves near a Staples. Expect Labs has morphed its fascinating MindMeld app--a virtual assistant that "listens" in on your conversations and simultaneously feeds related Web content to your iPad--into an intelligent layer that can be used as part of any website. For example, while browsing a retailer's site, a leisure-minded customer could simply speak into a laptop or mobile phone and say, "Show me all of the red and black scarves made by Hermès," and a shopping list would appear. This is a bit more indirect than what Emu does, but it's nonetheless a good example of how I expect consumers to encounter such technologies in the second half of this year.
Meanwhile, researchers at MIT, Stanford, and the University of Texas at Austin are building infrastructure so that our devices will be able to listen and watch: They'll know the places we go, the people we interact with, our habits, our tastes and preferences, and more. Then they'll use this data to anticipate our needs--even, potentially, before we anticipate them ourselves.
Does this raise privacy concerns? Maybe. But my bet--and the bet of all companies eagerly piling into this space--is that a decade from now, these virtual assistants will have made our lives so much easier that it will be difficult to remember why we ever worried about them in the first place.
Amy Webb is the founder of Webbmedia Group, which advises an international client base on emerging technologies and digital media trends.