Personal digital assistants and the Grand Budapest Interface

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If you want to imagine the future of personal computing you could do worse than watch The Grand Budapest Hotel. Near the end of the magical film, Gustave (played by Ralph Fiennes) the concierge of the eponymous resort is in a tight spot. His bacon is saved by a phone call to members of The Society of the Crossed Keys, an international cabal of top-drawer concierges. Together they call in favours, share advice and resolve Gustave's thorny conundrum all while Gustave himself merely waits as the palms are greased and the intelligence darts along the telephone lines of the parleying professionals. Quite literally, one call does it all.

And that has precisely what to do with the next wave of computers? It is a perfect analogue to the way interoperating and autonomous personal digital assistants may deliver information in the near future.

Right now we have some useful artificially intelligent agents to help us out: Siri, Cortana, Google and Alexa, to name a few. Each of them can data-mine a vast array of databases, indexes and user-generated content to understand and answer simple queries: "Where's the nearest coffee shop?" "What planes are overhead right now?" "Who was the female lead in the Harry Potter movies?"

But, they all lack some pretty basic abilities that would make them more like almost-psychic concierges.

With the exception of some beta tests by Google, the digital assistants can't search inside apps. That means that as more service-oriented companies (think hotels) move to providing native apps to customers, the search engines that our digital assistants rely on will be less able to gather the real-time data we need to make truly smart, economic room bookings.

They also don't play nicely with one another. They are nowhere near The Society of the Crossed Keys, pooling their expertise for a common goal. Siri, for example, doesn't hand off, say, geo-specific queries to Google, nor can it mine the personal data collected by Google to refine searches. Cortana knows nothing of the recent apps Siri has opened. Digital assistants play their cards pretty close to the vest.

Finally, though they are great at single queries and are getting better at understanding the antecedents of pronouns and having pseudo-conversations, digital assistants cave under the pressure of real human dialogue. Asking Siri, "About that, I thought the guy in the velvet suit was that weird-eyed fellow in the movie about Frankenstein" will not get the response, "you mean Gene Wilder?"

But, when all that -- the app searching, the playing nice with each other, the ability to truly understand human chitchat -- are sorted out we will be in the age of the invisible interface where interacting with a computer is more about conversation than engaging with a process-oriented screen. It will, in other words, be exactly like dealing with a top-flight concierge, with a network of experts that have her back. And, by the way, it will make talking to a watch look less stupid, which is always a good thing.

We may think our digital assistants are great now, but, really, we've only been dealing with the hotel lobby boys. It will be a few years before Ralph Fiennes shows up.

Listen to an audio version of this column, read by the author, here.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for on technology and the Internet.

Image: Tarlen Handayani/flickr

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