How can a small group of app developers design software that fulfils the needs of millions of different people? This has vexed the technology world for years, and a Spanish company thinks it has cracked it with an online platform called Fiona.
The concept is all about creating the perfect personal assistant app, but if you're now thinking of Siri, you're way off. This is truly next generation stuff, with virtual avatars and holographic projections on the horizon that use a higher form of artificial intelligence (AI).
It's nothing short of a community for the creation of an artificial mind. Fiona (framework for interactive-services over natural-conversational agents) is the baby of Adele Robots, a Spanish company with offices in Delaware in the United States. The University of California, Clemson University, Athens University and Keio University are also involved, as are companies such as Nuance Communications, Chatbots, Verbio Speech Technologies and Ivona.
They're all busy working on "sparks", an online platform sparkingtogether.com to create the next generation of virtual avatars. Fiona is where developers, researchers, companies, geeks and designers from around the world can upload their own "killer" feature - a specific behaviour, an amazing character or the best of their knowledge on a topic. These sparks are like apps - and the smarter the sparks are, the smarter the character will be. The final goal is to create a character that is finally able to understand humans - and the endgame is to create an artificial mind.
An avatar, however, has a human-like presence. "An avatar, also called a virtual assistant or embodied conversational agent, is a cartoonish yet realistic representation of a person who you can talk to, and answers you like a human," says Lucia Fernandez Cossio, director of projects at Adele Robots. "Avatars have a multitude of different uses, from advising you on the purchase of a car to emulating a television news reporter."
That does sound a bit like Siri, although we're not sure we'd trust her to choose our next apartment.
"Siri is a personal assistant, but it is not embodied; Fiona avatars are," Cossio says. "The main difference is that the avatars created using Fiona combine the knowledge of hundreds of universities, research centres and companies all over the world."
The beauty of this collaboration is that Fiona will become continuously smarter as more contributions make it onto the platform.
The construction of an avatar is complex, which is why this community has sprung up to help some of the best scientists in the world pool their expertise.
"Fiona aims to become the open source tool to bring together the work of all these brilliant minds," Cossio says.
Adele is trying to port Fiona to smartphones - something that should be achieved by May, although the avatars created with Fiona can already work on a computer, a kiosk or - in one case - even be projected onto holographic glass.
"You could have one in the entrance of an office building to welcome visitors and help them find who they are looking for," says Cossio. "Or one in an ATM to help people with their transactions; or even one on a website giving information about your company."
However, the application of the Fiona platform goes far beyond merely creating avatars.
"The avatar could act as a true at-home personal assistant, providing you with information you may need about your day, suggesting shopping alternatives, and controlling the lights and heating in your home," says Cossio, who warns against getting too carried away with AI.
"People usually have unrealistically high expectations about true AI and maybe the AI that currently exists isn't as smart as we would like," she says, "but we think Fiona will help to reach true AI."