Helping you to order your thoughts and surface the right information at the right time: these are among the services provided nowadays – to users ranging from school students to company employees – by virtual assistants working via messaging systems.

Using AI to jog our memories

Up Next is the result of close collaboration between Civic Nation, a Washington D.C.-based NGO working in the area of ‘civic tech’, and Huge, a New York-based design agency. This text messaging service is designed to help high school students through the process of entering a university, sending prompt reminders when they need to perform vital tasks such as sending in their applications for a given university or turning up on time for an interview. Up Next can also be programmed to help college students make timely repayments on their bank loans. It is not intended to come across as an authoritarian or paternalistic figure but to serve as a sort of virtual personal assistant. The tool is still in its infancy and one can well imagine lots of other ways of using it to good effect.

Up Next engage les étudiants dans leur parcours universitaire

Up Next keeps students focused on their academic path (Up Next)

One can certainly see this type of communication tool being used in the near future as a complement to a paper diary, and even being widely integrated into school and college administration systems. It has the potential to help school pupils manage their workload better, by sending reminders of exam dates or work to be submitted, and might even get them to make a greater commitment to their academic careers. One of the driving forces in education going forward will certainly be drawing full benefit from the digital devices enthusiastically used by young people rather than banning them from classrooms.

This initiative is part and parcel of the general trend towards use of virtual assistants, especially those which use messaging systems. This is for example the idea behind Tennessee-based startup Hippo, whose service offers for example to send you ‘nudges’ via SMS.  The tool is designed to ‟give our brains a little help!” as Hippo co-founder McArthur Gill is fond of saying, by avoiding a disorganised pile-up of huge volumes of notes in our phones on the one hand and filling in our little memory lapses on the other.

Hippo ordonne les notes de votre téléphone et vous envoie des rappels en temps voulu

Hippo organises the notes in your phone and sends you reminders at the right time (Hippo)

The basic idea behind this venture, which was launched in 2014, is first and foremost to help people take better care of their relationships. Explains McArthur Gill: ‟We launched Hippo with the idea of helping to grow and maintain users’ personal and professional networks.” So if someone is trying to remember a friend or family member’s birthday, all s/he has to do is send a text message to Hippo. Using natural language processing, an approach which is at the crossroads between artificial intelligence and linguistics, Hippo will schedule ‘nudges’ to be texted to the user at the appropriate time. ‟Our system allows you to schedule reminders to yourself, bring up your notes on any person you choose and receive gentle nudges at the right time. Doing all this via text message makes the whole thing far more convenient,” argues Gill. In fact we can imagine a vast number of ways in which this smart reminder tool, with its ability to virtually stretch our memory faculties, could help not only older people and those suffering from memory loss but in fact everyone, both at work and in the home.

By Pauline Canteneur