Stanford Scientists Are Developing An Open Virtual Assistant

Virtual assistants today are innately identified with the company that builds them. A team of Stanford computer scientists plan to try and change that with a new virtual assistant that would stay independent of corporate giants and allow users to maintain more data privacy than one of the name-brand voice assistants.

Pushing Back Against Juggernauts

The new program, named Almond, is being developed by Stanford computer systems designer Dr. Monica Lam. According to her research, there’s a danger that allowing a small number of companies to control the vast amounts of information brought in by virtual assistants could annihilate online privacy. Even as Amazon, Apple, Microsoft, and Google are battling to take the biggest possible share of the virtual assistant market, they are amassing a treasure trove of data about their users. People use their voice assistants in so many ways, and connect them to so many accounts, that any pretense of shielding information from the companies that own the voice assistants is gone.

Almond is designed to push back against the juggernauts of virtual assistants. After an early release last year, Lam and her team recently earned a $3 million grant from the National Science Foundation to pursue their mission.

“This research contributes to the creation of a decentralized computing ecosystem that protects user privacy and promotes open competition,” the abstract for the NSF award explains.

Decentralized and Private

As an alternative to the most common virtual assistants, Almond offers a decentralized approach, with information stored and shared according to what users want, instead of what companies prefer. Their plans include partnering with a mix of companies and individual developers to continually improve their platform. A shared Wiki-style database called Thingpedia offers ways for tech developers to work out ways to connect their devices and apps to Almond. The software is already free for computers, smartphones, and Internet of Things devices.

As privacy issues concerns become a central question for virtual assistant makers, services like Almond may become more appealing to consumers, despite its still uneven reach and performance. If the big players in the space can’t find a balance between service and privacy that people are comfortable with, Almond and its successors might not seem nuts at all.


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