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Cisco Developing 'Monica' Digital Assistant

Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri are getting a sister: A voice-activated digital assistant named "Monica," who will live at the office and is designed for business.

Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) is introducing Monica in beta in some of its video endpoints. Like Alexa, Siri and Microsoft's Cortana, you speak to Monica in natural language, and the intelligent assistant answers a question or performs a task.

Initially, Monica will be available in Cisco's telepresence systems, where Cisco already installs microphone arrays. "What you can do is walk around the conference room and invoke an agent," says Jens Meggers, Cisco SVP and GM of cloud collaboration. "You can say, 'Hey Monica, who am I meeting with next?' It will show you a meeting and participants." Monica will also be able to find subject matter experts within an organization and call them.

Cisco plans to roll out Monica on all its collaboration touchpoints: Software, the mobile phone, chatbots and more. "It's an intelligent system that lives in the cloud in a video endpoint," Meggers says.

Why "Monica"? Selecting the name of an intelligent assistant for voice recognition is a big deal. The name needs to have phonemes that are easily recognized by the machine, but it shouldn't be too common. That's where the name Monica falls down, and might be replaced when the product goes into production; Monica is too common, shared by many people (including the former White House intern, the singer and the one on the sitcom).

Monica was developed by a research team within Cisco that works on midrange projects. Traditionally, innovation focuses either on immediate product upgrades, or far-out long-range science-fiction prototypes. Cisco wanted a group working on technology that was high-profile and practical, yet not quite ready for prime time.

Further out, Cisco has a long-range vision for Monica as a complete virtual assistant for business, making use of the enterprise's entire store of data. "These artificial intelligences have access to data that gets the job done," Jonathan Rosenberg, Cisco CTO of collaboration. Monica (or whatever she ends up being called) would be able to access the entire "collaboration graph" -- everybody a user has had meeting with, or exchanged messages or shared PowerPoint presentations. "It starts to become smart, like an assistant," Rosenberg says. "You can say, 'I had a meeting with this person three weeks ago. They had PowerPoint slides. Where are those?' And it shares them with you."

In the long-range future, Cisco's vision is that Monica would be able to access financial results, headcount records or product designs and display them on a screen in a meeting room. "These go beyond video conferencing. It's the display screen for the artificial intelligence," Rosenberg said.


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He added, "We're investing a lot in bots and integration that allows us to plug third-party systems into Cisco Spark as the first step in the journey to artificial intelligence knowledge systems. That's where this technology goes."

Watch this video for a Monica demo at last month's CiscoLive conference:

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— Mitch Wagner, Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, Editor, Light Reading Enterprise Cloud

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Infostack 8/22/2016 | 8:47:08 AM
Silos don't scale Yet another example of winner takes all mentality of tech sector and in particular Silicon Valley.  It should be obvious to everyone working on AI that horizontal sharing and layers is the only way that it will truly scale.  Every individual has not only a unique signature, but their preferences are completely different.  For AI to scale across such complexity there needs to be much more sharing (with the end-users consent) of data across platforms and verticals.
Mitch Wagner 8/22/2016 | 11:22:55 AM
Re: Silos don't scale In other words, the solution is not for Cisco to develop its own digital assistant, but rather to partner with the other, popular digital assistants already on the market, such as Alexa and Siri? 
Infostack 8/22/2016 | 12:08:33 PM
Re: Silos don't scale You got it!  Sharing needs to occur at all layers.  That's why these OS, device and app silos are all dead-ends.  Right now everyone believes that big data and monetizing our privacy in exchange for ad/marketing dollars is the right way to go.  There is a much much much bigger revenue opportunity out there by marrying commerce and communication sessions and digitizing the real world with video and IoT.  Said differently displacing time and space and physical costs digitally across an infinite demand universe.  What we now know is that there are no supply constraints, only business model constraints to untap unlimited demand.
danielcawrey 8/22/2016 | 12:15:26 PM
Re: Silos don't scale A very different type of Cisco product, yet one I think is needed. If this can do what Cisco advertises, I think its customers will pay for it. But I'm sure it would not come cheap. 

It won't matter if it works, though. 
Joe Stanganelli 8/22/2016 | 12:51:20 PM
Female AI voices vs male At a recent conference at MIT on AI, an event completely developed by overprivileged, whiny, Millennial undergrads, one of the prosecutorial-like questions to one of the panelists was why their digital assistant had a female voice -- accusing the company of sexism.

The panelist defended his company by noting that the digital assistant can be changed to a male voice, noting that a female voice was merely the default.  The hipsters in the audience were unappeased.

Of course, decades of research in the telecom industry and elsewhere demonstrates that female voices are - on the whole -- easier to hear than male ones.  This is why, when you call customer service or tech support and have to listen to and talk to a recording, the voice is almost always a woman's.
Joe Stanganelli 8/22/2016 | 12:55:39 PM
Re: Silos don't scale Personally, I think that if you've seen one digital assistant, you've seen them all.

What it really comes down to is the voice-recognition technology.  All of them leave a lot to be desired (especially Google's, IMHO).

Dragon, if they haven't already, ought to consider developing their own and then licensing it -- given that Dragon already is probably the best automatic voice-recognition/transcription on the market.
Duh! 8/22/2016 | 1:29:18 PM
White House Intern To anybody of a certain age, the name "Monica" will forever be associated with Ms. Lewinski.  The (inappropriate for LR) jokes write themselves.

Hello, Cisco marketing? 
inkstainedwretch 8/22/2016 | 2:58:11 PM
AI / big data / advertising The last I heard, Google's ad business is the single most lucrative business in the technology sector. It would only be a surprise if other companies did not try to bite a chunk out of it.

Yes, every individual's behavior is different. It is also different in context -- personal vs. professional. I think the suggestion made in previous comments that combining personal and professional lives is inevitable, because it will be useful from the standpoint of individual users and because it will potentially be very profitable for the companies that make the combination possible by selling the data analysis for a number of possible uses, mostly advertising. 

Cisco can put a price tag on the service, but I wonder if it will be able to sustain it as a product sold to enterprise customers for long? It just seems like something Google or Microsoft Azure or Facebook will figure out how to do for free (to bolster their ad businesses). I'd be happy to hear from anyone who works in this area who thinks otherwise.

If my assumptions hold, Cisco should be working on how to share (which is to say, sell) its data with potential partners such as Google, Azure, FB, etc.

-- Brian Santo

 
mendyk 8/22/2016 | 4:13:36 PM
Re: White House Intern Also, the idea that all these "assistants" have to be female is a bit ... genderly insensitive?
Mitch Wagner 8/23/2016 | 10:53:32 AM
Re: AI / big data / advertising Enterprises will be reluctant to give access to their proprietary information to a company that wants to mine that information to sell ads against it. That makes an ad-supported version of Monica a non-starter. 

The ad business has a natural limit on it - ads have to advertise SOMETHING, which means the ad business will always grow at a pace slower than the larger economy. 
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