Sunday, September 22, 2013

Ask Ziggy What?

Every now and then a new company or tech tool blips on my radar that piques my curiosity. Recently, I ran across Ask Ziggy, a Sacramento California based NLP start-up. No, not a typo, they really are based in Sacramento (well, technically Rocklin, the Arlington of Sacramento).

This piqued my curiosity first and foremost because that's about 90 minutes from where I grew up in the Sacremento Valley, an area well known as a hot bed of dry summer dust, but not known as a hot bed of NLP start-ups. Then again, one of the new hot beds of tech is Austin Texas. So hey, if it can happen in Austin, why can't it happen in Sacramento?

Before I go on, let me make it clear that I do not work for Ask Ziggy in any way and this is not a sponsored blog in any way. These thoughts are entirely my own. This is my personal blog and all content is my own and reflects my honest, personal opinions.

As I flipped through Ask Ziggy's web pages, four things occurred to me:
  1. "Ask Ziggy" as a brand is eerily reminiscent of "Ask Jeeves".
  2. Their core goal is making it easier for app developers to use NLP speech science.
  3. They have received $5 million in VC funding.
  4. Is this the start of a Sacramento NLP community?
1) Ask Jeeves: Most folks in the NLP community recall Ask Jeeves, a question answering search engine from the 1990s that was going to revolutionize search. Unfortunately, Google revolutionized search way better than they did, and Ask Jeeves was forced into a series of lay offs, booms, lay offs, booms "business cycle." Today, they're best known for that annoying Yahoo! tool bar extension.

2) Making Speech Science Easy: Since Ask Ziggy is currently in "private beta," I'm actually not exactly sure what they do, but it seems like they empower an app developer to allow a user to make relatively unconstrained natural language voice commands, and their NLP technology magically "figures out" what action is appropriate (given the app's basic goals and functionality). So, maybe a music app could allow a user to speak aloud "I wonder what MIA's new song sounds like?" and Ask Ziggy's tech figures out that that's equivalent to the action command [PLAY MIA New Song].

If that's true, then that would be awesome. It is a common complaint against Siri that it doesn't "understand" a lot of commands. Maybe Ask Ziggy is applying some bleeding edge NLP, informed by contemporary psycholinguistics, to bridge the gap. Dunno. It's not clear what their special sauce is from their promotional materials, but I like the idea of relieving average app developers of the burden of learning speech science just to add voice activation to their app.

3) Five Million Dollars! Maybe I'm jaded at this point, but $5 million in VC funding is a drop in the bucket in serious NLP development-land. $5 million equals maybe 2-3 years for a modest sized group, maybe 5 years for a really small group. They received this funding near the end of 2012, it's now near the end of 2013. They'd be lucky to have $3.5 million left, with the clock ticking. It's great to get VC funding, but it's greater to get customers. What is their plan for 2015? That's the money year, as far as I can tell.

4) Sacramento is the New Google? It's great to see Sacramento developing a tech community, especially in NLP. Unlike the energy industry, the computer tech industry doesn't need natural resources nearby, so it's not tied to geography like coal, oil, or natural gas. Any two-bit town can become a tech powerhouse (I'm looking at you, Redmond Washington). Any community of practice fosters creativity and innovation. There is no a priori reason that Sacramento could not become a new generator of NLP technologies and innovation. It only requires the techies in that area to know each other, meet regularly, be open minded, and ... oh yeah, have access to that $5 million in VC capital, that helps too.

Best of luck Ziggy.

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