10/22/2012 @ 1:22PM
Will Nuance's Nina do what Apple's Siri won't?
A series of Forbes Insights profiles of thought leaders changing the business landscape: Gary Clayton, Chief Creative Officer, Nuance
Apple’s Siri iPhone voice-based App interface has forever changed consumer expectations of how to interact with their computing devices. But Nuance’s Nina may represent an even bigger transformation—the consumerization of IT. Nuance has over 10,000 employees, $1.4 billion in revenue in FY ‘11, $7.65 billion market cap company, headquartered in Burlington, Massachusetts and is best known for its Dragon Naturally Speaking voice recognition software. They just might be the biggest, most successful company you never heard of before. They describe themselves as “focused on developing the most human, natural intuitive ways to use your voice to take command of information.”
Siri is cool. But Nina may represent a true leap forward in man-machine learning and artificial intelligence. I recently spoke with Gary Clayton, Nuance’s Chief Creative Officer about his role in bringing Nina to life and his thoughts on how Nina is already bringing a welcome change into how businesses put the tool he helped to create to work to better serve their customers. He’s the guy responsible for turning some of the world’s most sophisticated software algorithms and artificial intelligence into engaging and user-friendly interfaces. He also oversees innovation, strategy and design at Nuance. “I wear a lot of hats,” said the understated Clayton.
The major innovation behind Nina is its capability to retain context over time. People can interact with Nina, the virtual assistant for customer service apps, and carry on a complex set of instructions within the same conversation flow. Its artificial intelligence learns and anticipates the user’s interests and requests over time—using natural language understanding. For example: a person can ask Nina what their checking account balance is, then a person can ask Nina to show them the charges over $200 and then for the month of August, or one could go through the bill paying process by simply stating “I would like to pay the balance on my cable bill on Friday from my savings account.” Humans communicate through context, not through complex, detailed step-by-step instructions that have always been the hallmark of human to computer interaction.
Imagine calling your insurance company and having a pleasant and successful interaction with an always friendly voice. No more yelling and swearing into the phone “Operator”!! Nina can also interact across devices and applications, so that customers can choose to connect by voice, mobile device or web page or any combination and still retain the context of the interaction. In fact, one such enlightened financial services company USAA, is implementing Nina to create a better customer experience. “USAA is extraordinarily responsive to their customers; one of the very best in their field and represent a gold standard in managing the customer experience,” said Clayton.
“People like to anthropomorphize technology,” stated Clayton. He knows it’s a basic human need to understand and control the world around us. Nina is one expression of meeting that need. That’s what drives Clayton in what he calls his never-ending quest to understand the creativity behind science and art. He started his quest as a physics undergrad at SUNY and later ventured to San Francisco for interdisciplinary studies and eventually earned his BA in communication from San Francisco StateUniversity. He sees creativity as the synthesis of art and science.
This led to a fascinating career path that began with the explosion of Silicon Valley technology drawing the film business toNorthern California. There, Francis Ford Coppola, George Lucas and others set up shop. Clayton worked with all of them but most notably Lucas and his Skywalker Ranch studios inMarin County,California, where he engineered sound recordings, which included the first recordings at Skywalker Sound with the San Francisco Ballet Orchestra. He founded and ran his own multi-media production company from 1985 to 2000 and worked on many Academy Award winning films, Grammy winning albums and Emmy winning TV shows. There he worked on projects with Michael Jackson, Dave Brubeck, The Cure, Brian Eno, David Bowie, Mel Torme, Sam Shepard, David Byrne, Norman Mailer, Apple Computer (Knowledge Navigator,Newton) and many others. After a succession of consulting projects at Pacific Bell and a start-up gig at TellMe, (acquired by Microsoft for a reported $800 million in 2007) he spent time at Yahoo where he headed up their speech strategy. From there he landed at Nuance in 2008. Clayton is the owner of eight patents and is considered one of the leaders in the digital speech recognition movement.
As one of the key developers of the Dragon Go! and Nina product lines, he is helping to push Nuance into the forefront of turning mobile device personal assistants into personal advisers. His vision of the synthesis of art and science may be a never-ending process, but his work on Nina just may be the full fruition of a lifetime of trying.