I’ve come by and purchased a number of digital assistants over the last couple of years from both Google and Amazon but not Apple. At first their novelty drove me to take advantage of them to do a number of things. But over time I started to only use them for music playing or jokes. But then I started to hear about some other concerns with the technology.
The problems with today’s vendor based, digital assistants
My and others main concern was their ability to listen into conversations in the home and workplace without being queried. Yes, there are controls on some of them to turn off the mic and thus any recordings. But these are not hardwired switches and as software may or may not work depending on the implementation. As such, there is no guarantee that they won’t still be recording audio feeds even with their mic (supposedly) turned off.
At one point I saw a news article where police had subpoenaed recordings of a digital assistant to use in a criminal case. Now I’m ok with use of this for specific, court approved, criminal cases but what’s to limit its use to such. And not all courts, or governments for that matter, are as protective of personal privacy as some.
Open source digital assistant on the way
But with an open source version of a digital assistant, one where the user had complete programmatical control over its recording and use of audio data is another matter. I suppose this doesn’t necessarily help the technically challenged among us that can’t program our way out of a paper bag but even for those individuals, the fact that an open source version exists to protect privacy, could be construed as something much more secure than a company or vendor’s product.
All that made it very interesting when I saw an article recently about a project put together at Standford on an Open source challenger to popular virtual assistants”.
How to create a open source digital assistant
The main problem facing an open source digital assistant is the need for massive amounts of annotated training request data. This is one of the main reasons that commercial digital assistants often record conversations when not specifically requested.
But Stanford University who is responsible for creating the open source digital assistant above has managed to design and create a “rules based” system to help generate all the training data needed for a virtual assistant.
With all this automatically generated training data they can use it to train a digital assistant’s natural language processing neural network to understand what’s being asked and drive whatever action is being requested.
At the moment the digital assistant (and its conversation generator) has somewhat limited skills, or rather only works in a restricted set of domains such as restaurants, people, movies, books and music. For example, “identify a restaurant near me that has deep dish pizza and is rated greater than 4 on a 5 point scale”, “find me an mystery novel talking that is about magic”, or “who was the 22nd president of the USA”.
But as the digital assistant and its annotated, rules based conversation generator are both open source, anyone can contribute more skills code or add more conversational capabilities. Over time, if there’s enough participation, perhaps even someday perform all of the skills or capabilities of commercial digital assistants.
Introducing Almond and Stanford’s OVAL
Stanford work on this project is out of their OVAL (Open Virtual Assistant Lab). Their open source virtual assistant is called Almond.
Almond’s verbal generator is called Genie and uses compositional technology to generate conversations that are used to train their linguistic user interface (LUInet). Almond also uses ThingTalk a new declaritive program language to process responses to queries and requests. Finally, Almond makes use of Thingpedia, a repository of information about internet services and IoT devices to tell it how to interact with these systems.
Stanford Genie technology
The technology behind Genie is based on using source text statements to create templates that can generate sentences for any domain you wish to have Almond work in. If one is interested in expanding the Almond domains, they can create their own templates using the Genie toolkit.
One essentially provides a small set of input sentences that are converted into templates and used by Genie to understand how to parse all similar sentences. This enables Almond to “understand” what’s being requested of it
The set of input sentences can start small and be augmented or added to over time to handle more diverse or complex queries or requests. Their GitHub toolkit and Genie technology is described more fully in a paper Genie: A generator of natural language symantec parsers for virtual assistant commands
Stanford ThingTalk declarative language
ThingTalk is the programming language used to control what Almond can do for requests and queries. Essentially it’s a multi-part statement about what to do when a request comes along. The main parts in a ThingTalk statement include:
- When a particular action is supposed to be triggered.
- What service does the request need in order to perform its action.
- What action is requested
The “what service does a request need” are based on Open API calls (See ThingPedia below). The “what action is requested” can either be standard Almond actions or invoke other ThingPedia open source API calls, such as create a tweet, post on FB, send email etc.
For example, a ThingTalk statement looks like:
Which monitors Fox news for any new news articles and sends them (the link) to your Slack channel.
Thingpedia is an open source repository of structured information available on the Web and of API services available on the web. Structured information or data is the information behind calendars, contact databases, article repositories, etc. Any of which can be queried for information and some of which can be updated or have actions performed on them. API services are the way that those queries and actions are performed.
The Thingpedia web page shows a number of services that already have Open source APIs defined and registered. For example, things like twitter, facebook, bing search, BBC news, gmail and a host of other services. More are being added all the time and these represent the domains that Almond can be used to act upon.
Some of these domains are more defined that others. But in any case any service that takes the form of an web based API can be added to Thingpedia.
Thingpedia as a standalone open source repository is valuable in and of itself regardless of its use by Almond. But Almond would be impossible without Thingpedia. Thingpedia wants to be the wikipedia of APIs.
Almond, putting it all together
Almond consists of mainly the Almond Agent, Engine and Thingpedia. The Agent is used by the various Almond implementions to parse and understand the request and access the ThinkTalk program statement. Almond Agent uses its LUInet natural language interpreter, interpret that request and to select the ThingTalk program for the request. Once the ThinkTalk program is identified, it uses the various Thingpedia APIs requested by the ThinkTalk statement to generate the proper API calls to the service being requested and generate any output that is requested.
Where can you run Almond
Almond is available currently as a web app, an Android App, a Gnome (Linux) desktop/laptop App, a CLI application or can be run on your Mac or Windows computers. You could of course create your own smart speaker to run Almond or perhaps hack a current smart speaker to do so.
One important consideration is that with the Android app, all your data and credentials are only stored on the phone. And will not go out into the cloud or elsewhere. I didn’t see similar statements about privacy protections for the web app or any of the other deployments. But as Almond is open source, you potentially have much greater control over where your data resides.
What I would really like is a smart speaker app running on a RPi with a microphones and a decent speaker attached, all in the package of a cube or cylinder.
I thought their videos on Almond were pretty cheesy but the technology is very interesting and could potentially make for an interesting competitor of today’s smar
All photos and graphics from Stanford Almond and OVAL Lab websites.