The Rise of the Personal Assistant

Entrepreneur, CEO and computer scientist Andy Hickl wrote a great piece for Tech Crunch yesterday about the rise of this notion of personal assistants as a means for helping us to make the most out of our lives.  I love the piece because Andy blows the doors off of our conventional understanding of what duties a digital personal assistant might perform.

One school of thought says that assistants should be all about delegation. I pass tasks downstream, and in doing so, I reclaim my time and energy. I think that several companies will achieve big things doing just that.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. What about an assistant that doesn’t take things off my plate — but rather, wants to put things on it? What about an assistant that guides me down paths less traveled? What about an assistant that aspires to help me be a better version of myself? What about having a colleague instead of a secretary? A mentor instead of a student?

What would it mean to have a rewarding, mutual relationship with a computer — not in a GTD sense, per se — but rather in my private life? A relationship that was based on mutual admiration, a high level of trust, and a secret handshake? We need a corollary to the notion of an assistant. I like having an assistant. But I want a companion too.

With a companion, you’ll have to give more to get more, too. It’s more of a partnership, and a true love. A companion is an emotionally evolved species. Better put, a companion actually aspires to help me be a better human, and lead a better human life. A companion is about more than just finding me an ATM, conducting a web search, or deleting a calendar entry. It’s about achieving goals, and revealing truths.

Andy says we’re seeing the convergence of three major trends that are making this technologically possible and socially desirable.

The Transparent Self

First, these apps will require a lot of data about us to become effective and useful in our lives.  We need to let them in and then be convinced that continuing to share personal information with them is providing us with tangible value.  Andy points out that location-based apps may have the best headstart in this area, as they ask for a type of data that we’re freely willing to give up, and that can be used to make a ton of accurate predictions about who we are, what we do, and (ultimately) what we’ll want/need.

The Aspirational Self

The next step is about creating enough value to garner continued use.  A lot of this begins with the idea of The Quantified Self, the act of being able to measure habits and behaviors as a means of self-improvement and discovery.  The Feltron Report, Jambone Up and Nike’s recently launched Fuel Band are all great examples.  But, Andy points out that they rely (to varying degrees) on game mechanics.  Whereas, when you receive a recommendation from a trusted source, you don’t have to be “gamed” because there’s a sense of established trust and mutual understanding.  It’s what we have with our significant others and close friends.  And this is where the opportunity lies: in creating trusted “companions” that make our limited time on earth richer.

The Clued-In Self

Staying with this idea of the companion, the difference they have from assistants is that companions (or think of them as good friends) say “Hey.  I saw this awesome new thing.  You gotta go try it with me now!”.  Whereas assistants (think: Siri) are reactive.  They do what you tell them to do, but operate exclusively within the purview of your own awareness and knowledge.  The second piece to this goes back to the always-on mentality.  The idea that our desires, interests and needs are always changing, requires a companion that is always listening, re-evaluating and adapting.

Overall, an awesome series of trends and an even better framework for thinking about the future of brands as utilities…and eventually companions. Rock on, Andy.




  1. […] If this doesn’t seem like a big deal, think about how much influence your current Netflix recommendations have over what you watch.  In my case very little, although they certainly improve with time.  But, what if the system could actually incorporate more salient data about what you’re reading, what links you’re sharing, or classes you’re taking in school?  It could actually start to generate recommendations based on more timely interests and fascinations and with it become a highly trusted source for what to watch next, at which point Netflix would become indispensable to it’s subscribers.  For more on this specific topic, see a previous post I wrote about the Rise of the Personal Assistant. […]

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