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This AI startup wants to help robot assistants ask people the questions

Would that be considered a role reversal?

Joaquin Phoenix contemplates his AI system in “Her.”

Artificial intelligence startup Ozlo thinks it has a solution for situations where virtual assistants fail in their responses: Getting the bots to ask questions back.

Ozlo is launching a trio of software packages for other companies to enhance the virtual assistants they build. They’re aimed at making those assistants more sophisticated, including getting them to ask clarifying questions when they don’t understand a user request.

Current virtual assistants, meaning conversational apps and bots like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, “have this problem with being very brittle,” Ozlo CEO Charles Jolley told Recode.

He’s referring to those moments when Siri says, “I didn’t quite get that,” or where Google Assistant says, “Sorry, I don’t know how to do that yet,” without addressing what part of the question the virtual assistants don’t understand.

It’s a problem Ozlo, with $14 million in funding from Greylock Partners and AME Cloud Ventures, set out to solve with its own mobile app released for public download on iOS last October and later made available on Android. The startup wouldn’t share download data, but according to the Google Play store, it has only 100 Android downloads.

Jolley, who previously ran Facebook for Android, said the 30-person team’s consumer app will continue to be offered but “is really meant to test our service [the new products] in the real world.” Opening the software up to companies has been part of the company’s plan from the beginning, he said.

The three tools Ozlo is releasing include software for data analysis, interpretation of what a user intended to say, and for conversing with users. The last tool is supposed to help systems determine when to ask clarifying questions in response to a user request.

Demonstration of Ozlo’s software release

Ozlo is not alone in offering tools for companies to develop or improve upon virtual assistants. Google, IBM, Amazon and a smattering of startups also make tools to assist companies in building their own bots and enhance their software products.

An Ozlo rep said the company has three major customers signed on to use the services, “a top consumer internet company, a top media organization and a top mobile app. All are names you would recognize, with products you likely use every day.” Jolley said these customers are already building virtual assistants.

While the new products are being sold to companies, Jolley thinks consumers may be able to detect Ozlo’s use based on changes in how assistants work.

“I think probably the most surprising thing will be when you ask your assistant something ambiguous and it asks you something back,” he said.

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