Are we ready for artificial intelligence or AI? The larger question of our need for highly refined search engines may be even more relevant with innovations like travel search startup Desti on the horizon. Maybe a new search engine war is at hand…
I am the world’s biggest fan of very advanced search technology. My partner and I, our whole team, we are also travel fanatics. The world around us is so amazing, words seldom suffice actually. A big question came to my mind today as I read Venturebeat about a startup called Desti. “Do I really want or need somebody or something to do my traveling for me?” That’s my question.
Rocket Scientists – Theory Meets the Roadrunner
Riza Berkan, the scientist behind search engine hakia’s semantic search capabilities, is a very good friend of mine. Back when the so-called “search engine wars” raged, we used to discuss user needs, the ideology behind providing a search mechanism that does more than render some choices. Search that actually helps solve for x and y. Back then, Berkan and his team were on the threshold of real AI in search, then the marketing of Barney Pell’s Powerset cause Microsoft to bite to the tune of 100 plus million.
Real semantic search got sidetracked a bit. The reason I mention this is because not every niche, not every person out there is ready for semantic interaction, and for Desti the developers should adjust to the fact travel is one of those niches. Oh, and the last time I looked Bing (Powerset) was just a really nice version of Google with some new elements. Not exactly a female Albert Einstein just itching to help me find auto parts. Oh, here’s a video from Desti with said sexy voice speaking to what must be the dumbest bunch of travelers on the planet. Sorry, it just talks so down to people.
I am sure CEO Nadav Gur and his team are gasping right now; “How dare he?” But like you, they’ll read on if they’re as smart as I think they are. Before we look into Desti’s potential destiny, let’s dispel some myths. One insinuated by Venturebeat’s Rebecca Grant, is that somehow travel agents are all old fogies with one foot in the grave and the other on a peeled papaya. While author’s opening sentence fortifies the concept YOU will need a tech answer to all your problems, we are 100 years from virtual doctors.
Siri-like technology is still a toy, but even if it were not the idea of a travel assistant, most people will probably want to enjoy “building out” their vacation dreams – even a perfect Siri, would only serve two travel masters: The initial surge of “coolness” players, and the narrow niche of travelers searching for what Desti terms – “travel planning that is fun and as painless as possible”. Even though all the “investor powered” tech blogs blurbed on Desti so far, this startup has parsecs to go before being a travel pain anesthetic. As for those “natural” querries suggested by Desti? I can see the traveling couple at left typing or voicing in the question; “Show me kid friendly attractions near Walt Disney World” or near the beach for that matter. Most travel questions are not so complex as to need IBM to solve for x.
Now that my opinion has sliced Desti’s market share by 80 percent, let’s put back some of those users. Remember I said read on. Desti is not solely based on some Hal 9000 AI (see travel video at end) that helps you with the “mission” of going on a family vacation or business hop. Let me amplify here. Desti has one or two exit possibilities. First, they convert millions of travelers and make hundreds of millions for the founders. Secondly, they sell to Expedia or a competitor who needs to keep abreast.
In either scenario, selling solely AI is just not going to happen. If this were even possible, Apple would monetize Siri already. Either way Desti has to provide more than a sexy female voice if for no other reason than ultimate survival. This is one reason to believe the AI aspect is just for show, and not too much more. And that’s a good thing.
Artificial Intelligence or Artificial, Artificial Intelligence?
The other day Tnooz reported on Expedia testing their own variant of natural language search, no available in a Poweset-like sandbox called YourVisit. In that article Kevin May aptly points to other supposed “natural language search” developments in travel, namely Evature and Hopper. The problem with this is, these systems are not AI nor true semantic search, in fact “natural language search” is a buzz term actually used by Powerset to differentiate from hakia and Google semantic search experiments.
Expedia is heading off into replacing Google, for obvious reasons we should all applaud, but the databases Expedia has to be employed for the long tail of semantic travel search? Uh hum, let’s just say hakia has already been deployed on the local level, and Bing has been deployed spending hundreds of millions of dollars just to taunt Google a little. As for the real value behind Desti (and all others) content and more database choices is obvious even in Desti’s hiring plans. They are currently looking for content specialists. Hey, Hal 9000 had no need for text and images to discern mission priorities???
Okay, if you read this far you have to be wondering; “So, what is Desti good for?” What happens when competitive business forces compete? Choice goes up, price goes down, much energy is wasted, and then consumers go all “brand conscious”, that’s what happens. The end result can best be illustrated by looking at the candy bar section of your local (whichever chain you love) grocery store.
Those hundreds of candy bars used to “experiment” with our Baby Boomer Generation, those have been reduced to a couple of dozen or so. In the end we have become Mars fans, Butterfinger fans, Baby Ruth fans, Reeses fans, Twix, Snickers, and so on. How many more can you name? We’re headed to an era of super personalized tools.
The point is, makers make money of niche fans. Well, this is where all our choices on the Internet are headed too. Baby Ruth (Google) will end up giving up share to Butterfinger (Bing), maybe a Jolly Rancher or two (Blekko), basically a personal search engine for everyone and everything. And a refined Desti, perhaps absorbed by Travelocity or whoever, makes for a nice almond cluster inside that Almond Joy of a travel entity. Some of you will use it, and the travel businesses out there will use Desti and other tech to stay in the game. Desti seems destined to be a candy bar ingredient, or from the looks outside – a really nice service enhancer.
So why all the hype? Hey, we do travel PR and marketing too! Would you buy only your favorite candy bar when other people advertised theirs prolifically on TV? With a sort of “candy parity” going on, not hyping some chocolate and caramel, mixed with nuts – this would be futile. And there’s where Desti is a big deal.
Now, for those of you wondering why I went the long way around the barn toward calling Desti a natural investment in continued OTA advertising (and utility too), there is a continuation here. Just to show I can be concise (despite the rumors otherwise).
Audio input and feedback systems are crucial to the next stage of smart device development (your fingers are too fat). Desti is destined for mobile conversion for somebody.