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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

COMMENTS Add Comment
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Smartron 8/26/2016 | 4:15:13 PM
Re: Silos don't scale My wife just bought an Echo. I was pleased to find I can add my web site to her skill set. My product is not advertising based so it is a nice match. I wish Cisco well but to my eye scheduling meetings is going out of style. Even looking a slides from a meeting three weeks ago, no matter how quick and easy seems counter intutive. By the way even in my drinking days I never drank light beer!
Joe Stanganelli 8/23/2016 | 2:18:16 PM
Re: AI / big data / advertising @Brian: Interestingly, your point is precisely why LinkedIn became reluctant about opening up their data -- and gradually (and, eventually, completely) shut off the tap to their data and APIs...so they could be yet more valuable for acquisition by MSFT or Salesforce.
Joe Stanganelli 8/23/2016 | 2:16:04 PM
Re: Female AI voices vs male @Mitch: Being local, I cover as many (relevant) MIT events as I can.  This event -- while offering the benefit of livestreaming (which most MIT events don't) -- was largely poorly managed.  The event organizers who spoke clearly had no clue what they were talking about when they gave their speeches, the questions were chosen "democratically" via an app, and all of *that* focus where highly voted audience questions were concerned -- rather than on the technology -- was stretched to any and all even tangentially related social-justice issues.

Maybe my expectations were too high.  I figured that because it was a technology conference at MIT, the focus would be on, like, technology, or something.

Also, the featured startups later in the day?  Some of them strictly addressed, well, "problems" that are very distinctly Millennial in nature.

I know; I know.  My bias is showing.  Whatever.  I'm old enough now that I don't have to care.  Get off my lawn.
Joe Stanganelli 8/23/2016 | 2:09:01 PM
Re: Silos don't scale @Mitch: Perhaps mileage varies.  From my own personal experience, Dragon is fantastic, Siri is eh, and Google is a complete mess.

Good point about microphones -- but, realistically speaking, good dictation technology should be able to work with a wide range of "standard" mics/inputs.
Duh! 8/23/2016 | 12:02:57 PM
Re: White House Intern I suppose I should turn in my "Boomer" card. 
inkstainedwretch 8/23/2016 | 11:28:06 AM
Re: AI / big data / advertising "Monica -- Find me an open, conference room within two miles of my present location at this conference big enough to host 14 and schedule it for 2 o'clock."

"Monica -- find me an Italian restaurant with a private room so I can host a business dinner and schedule it for 7pm for 8 people."

"Monica -- find me a rental car. I don't care what company, but they have to guarantee something with 4-wheel drive is available. I need to pick it up before 4:00." 

Businesses will be reluctant to open up their data, but there's going to be tension between what business people want because they can get it everywhere else and enterprise policy. People will still want an AI-based digital assistant for a variety of reasons during the work day, some of which will be ad opportunities. It will be interesting to see how this plays out.

Why did Microsoft pay big bucks for LinkedIn? For this. 

--Brian Santo
Mitch Wagner 8/23/2016 | 10:57:55 AM
Re: Female AI voices vs male Joe - 

"At a recent conference at MIT on AI, an event completely developed by overprivileged, whiny, Millennial undergrads.... " 

Heh. What were some of the other signs of overprivileged whininess?
Mitch Wagner 8/23/2016 | 10:56:54 AM
Re: Silos don't scale Interesting you should say that about Google. Anecdotally, Google's voice recognition is supposedly better than Siri, and Alexa is supposedly best of all. 

Microphone quality has as much or more to do with the quality of service as the software does. Best software in the world is mediocre if the microphone isn't great. 
Mitch Wagner 8/23/2016 | 10:55:31 AM
Re: White House Intern Duh! - I actually associated it with Monica from Friends. The Lewinsky connection didn't occur to me until I googled the name. 

At any rate, the associations with the name are among the reasons that Cisco is looking to change it when the service gets to production. 
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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