Special Feature
Part of a ZDNet Special Feature: AI and the Future of Business

Putting free AI-driven services to work in your business

Consumer-focused smart virtual assistants such as Siri, Google Now and Cortana can also be valuable business tools.

Artificial intelligence is already all around you -- in the digital services you use to find photos or check the traffic on your way to work, for example.

AI-enabled helpers such as Siri, Google Now and Cortana (see below), plus Facebook's recently announced M, let your phone understand your speech or what restaurant (for example) you're referring to in an email.

Luckily, services exploiting these smart systems don't have to cost you an arm and a leg -- although, as with many free offerings, you may pay with your privacy.

Apple's Siri is perhaps the best known virtual assistant. Like its rivals, Siri can answer simple queries, obey voice commands and read text -- as well as learning about you and predicting information you'll be interested in. The next release of the iOS operating system for iPhones and iPads, iOS 9, will add a new 'Proactive' feature that will work with Siri to allow it to better understand your requests and work out what information you want before you ask for it. iOS 9 is expected to be released in September for devices from iPhone 4s, iPad 2, iPad Air, iPad mini 3 and iPod Touch 5th generation onwards.
Google Now
As well as being able to answer queries, Google Now has a heavy emphasis on learning your interests and routines and showing you information you need before it's requested. That information could be anything from displaying your shopping list when you arrive at a store to traffic jams on the way to work. The free service is available on devices running Android 4.1 Jelly Bean or later, iOS 6.0 or later and via the Google Chrome browser -- although it's less fully featured outside of Android. The next major update to the Android phone OS, called Marshmallow, will introduce Google Now On Tap, which will extend Google Now's ability to provide relevant information.
Microsoft's virtual assistant was released last year and is available on Windows Phone 8.1 and Windows 10 devices, as well as a free Android app. Like Siri and Google Now, Cortana learns from your activities and suggests information it thinks you'll be interested in, as well as answering simple queries.

Here are some of the many ways business users and small firms can take advantage of free AI-driven services aimed at consumers.

Email, calls and contacts

Virtual assistants allow you to easily dictate messages and organise meetings.

Google's voice search and Google Now, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana all let you send a message using phrases such as "Email Barry about subject x" or "Text my husband", followed by the message. Siri will also check and read new email messages.

Voice texting and calling ("Call Andy," for example) is also a standard feature for virtual assistants, as is the ability to schedule a calendar meeting with a single line such as "Schedule a meeting with Lucy at 2pm tomorrow". A similar approach can also be used to post to social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook.

Emailing and setting up meetings should get even easier using iOS 9 on iPhones and iPads. In iOS 9, Proactive Siri keep will track who you email and when, as well as regular attendees to events you create. Proactive will use this information to suggest names when you create emails and events in future.

This predictive approach will also be extended to calls. Proactive Siri will actively suggest people you might want to contact, based on who you contact, when and from where and whether you call or message them. It will use this information to generate a list of frequently contacted people that will change depending on the time of day and other factors.

Wasted time answering nuisance or irrelevant calls can also be reduced. When someone calls your Android phone (running 4.4 KitKat or later), instead of just being presented with a number, Google will pull in information from various sources to try and name the person or business calling. Apple is planning a similar feature in iOS 9, reportedly identifying the caller by scanning your emails for numbers.


Virtual assistants have been able to set voice and typed calendar reminders for a while, but these memory jolts can be triggered by more than the time of day or minutes elapsed.

Cortana in Windows 10, Google Now and Proactive Siri on iOS 9 can set reminders based on location, such as "Remind me to ring my wife when I get home" or 'Pick up some milk when I get to the corner store".

Siri can also set reminders related to specific tasks, such as "Remind me to finish writing this email this evening". Cortana also offers the ability to trigger a reminder the next time you speak to a person.


The days of rummaging through timetables to find the right connections are over.

Google search provides very simple access to journey times, no matter how you're travelling. A typed or voice search for 'Place A to Place B' will bring up directions and journey times -- including traffic -- by car, foot and bike, as well as public transport times.

On Android and iOS devices, Google Now can show you travel information you need before you ask for it, as can Cortana on Windows devices. By monitoring your emails and search, it can bring up flight check-in reminders on the day you travel, suggested times for heading to the airport based on traffic that day, boarding passes for select airlines, as well as details of your hotel or Airbnb, and directions. Also, because Google Now and Cortana know details of your travel plans you can simply ask "Show me my flights" or "Show me my trips" and they should display the right information.

On iOS 8, iPhones and iPads can show you how long it's likely to take to get to a meeting after you add an event to your calendar via the Travel Time option. Similarly, recent iPhones and Android handsets can learn your daily journeys and automatically show you travel times for them, via Google Now on Android and the Notifications Center on iPhone. Google Now can draw on information from many different apps, including favourites among business travellers such as travel deal app Kayak, flagging price changes on regular routes, Cleartrip to highlight journey details like whether your train is on time, and car reservation app Zipcar, which helps you find a drop-off point for your vehicle. Google Now can even give you a rough idea of where you've parked your car, identifying its location by using the accelerometer in the phone to work out when you stopped driving. If you arrived via public transport it can also flag up when the last train leaves.


Trying to figure out road signs or struggling to make yourself understood in a foreign country needn't be nightmare. The Google Translate app for Android and iOS and Microsoft's Translator apps offer a range of features that work with tens of languages. Both allow you to speak into your phone and have a translation read back to you. They can also translate foreign signs, allowing you to point your camera at the sign and see a translation laid over the top. Additionally, Google Now will translate simple queries made using a trigger phrase -- for example, "OK Google, how do I say in French 'I want to book a taxi'?"

Simple queries answered

Search engines are evolving from tools that give you documents and expect you to pull out the relevant information yourself, to showing you precisely what you need to know.

Google searches will already show weather in cities, the time in regions worldwide, share prices for companies, unit conversions and more, displaying the info in the search results, as well as linking to information from inside apps.

Many of these same questions can be also answered using voice commands using Google Voice Search and Google Now. Searches on iPhone and iPad within iOS 9 will reportedly be able to pull out similarly specific information, as well as data from inside apps.

When Android 6.0 Marshmallow launches, probably in September, users it will support simple, non-explicit queries in a wider range of apps. Someone looking at a restaurant on Yelp will be able to ask "How far is it from here?" and Google Now will figure out that 'it' refers to the location and show you directions from your where you are.

Similarly, Google Now On Tap will allow users to press and hold the device's Home button to bring up a card showing contextual information related to what they're currently viewing. If it's an email discussing booking a restaurant for a meeting, it would bring up reviews and opening times, while a story about a prominent business person might bring up a Wikipedia entry on that person. As well augmenting emails and web browsing, Google Now On Tap should be able to add contextual information to texts, instant messaging and Android apps in general.

Cortana provides similar contextual information in Windows 10. When navigating the web using Windows 10's Edge browser, users can highlight people, places and things to overlay more information such as definitions and Wikipedia entries.

Easy video and photo search

Keeping track of photos and videos used to require careful organisation in folders, but not any longer.

Software now allows you to ask a machine to retrieve photos in the same way you would a person, thanks to its ability to recognise a range of spoken phrases, to geotag videos and photos, and to query when images were captured.

In iOS 9, Proactive Siri will be able to fetch photos and videos using natural-language queries such as "Show me pictures from the site visit in Barcelona".

A similar sophisticated search feature is already available via Google Photos. The service includes the 'Auto-awesome' ability, which allows images to be searched without requiring you to tag photos, thanks to its ability to apply image recognition to galleries.

This feature allows you to search for photos with things or animals ('helicopters' or 'giraffes', for example), or that contain people. Google will also automatically group images into collections based on where they were taken or around specific dates.

Learning more about you

Computers traditionally had a frustrating lack of initiative, needing every little detail to be input. The next generation of smart virtual assistants should be noticeably less dumb, thanks to their ability to understand context -- the people, places and things you are interested in -- without you having to spell it out.


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