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buttery PB crackers sure help make New England taste like home.” (For the record, this care package from my aunt was a dual gift for my birthday and Valentine’s Day with my girlfriend.)
—“It’s OK to be a little bit unhealthy on your birthday. And for the one Jeff spent a thousand miles away from home, it was definitely OK to be a little bit unhealthy. Good thing, too, since the year’s best gifts were all those mouthwatering snacks. Mom always said it’s important to have color all over your plate. But I don’t think golden plantain chips and pink cans of Hefeweizen were the sort of colors she had in mind.”
Most of those details could be easily gleaned from the photos. (A Barcelona menu was visible in the photo of lava cake, so that’s how Mylestone figured out where that was taken.) I’m not sure how Mylestone knew I used to live in Wisconsin, but perhaps that was gathered from past articles I’ve written or publicly available information on LinkedIn and other social media.
It might be fun to have family and friends listen to my Mylestone memories, as a different way of sharing those experiences with them. And I can imagine myself calling up the stories a year or two from now to reminisce, perhaps while also looking back at the photos.
Future versions of Mylestone’s product will incorporate more types of media in the experience of the memory, Balter says. That’s something I think Mylestone—to its detriment—lost in switching from an online collection of text, photos, videos, and so on, to a product that (in its current form anyway) is just a robotic female voice talking to you.
One thing that might help is the ability to record audio of loved ones and make it available for Alexa devices to play on command. That would mean families could, say, record grandpa reading a bedtime story or grandma saying the prayer recited before each Thanksgiving meal. Then those recordings could be preserved for future generations. Balter says Mylestone plans to add that capability in the future.
“The line we do want to draw is the line between creepy and valuable,” Balter says. “I don’t want to recreate my deceased loved one. I want to have the memories that make me think of them available for my children and my children’s children.”
For the current version of the product, Balter declined to say which tasks are handled by the A.I. software and which are handled by members of the company’s nine-person staff. The basic idea is Mylestone filters the “assets”—mainly photos for now, but eventually written text and other media—through a series of deep learning algorithms “to help augment the process of narration,” says Jim Myers, head of engineering.
Mylestone could potentially set up the system so that the A.I. software does all of the work. But Balter says Mylestone’s service will likely always incorporate humans in the process, even as the technology advances.
“Some of the magic comes from that light touch that a human can give to it,” he says. “Humans are always going to be valuable.”
Mylestone also adds to the Boston area’s growing cluster of companies developing products for Alexa and other voice-controlled virtual personal assistants. Others include Earplay, Orbita, Mobiquity, and Rocket Insights. Then there’s Amazon itself—its local office has performed a lot of the work on speech recognition and other tech for the company’s Alexa-enabled devices.
All of these companies are betting that the future of technology is devices controlled by our voices. That shift is starting to happen: there were 1.7 million voice-controlled devices shipped in 2015, and 6.5 million were shipped last year, according to a report from VoiceLabs. The firm predicts 24.5 million will ship this year. Amazon is the early leader in the sector, but Google released a competing smart speaker product last fall, and more tech companies will likely follow.
Mylestone is still figuring out its business model, and Balter doesn’t want to share many details yet. But one possibility is charging a fee to have its product automatically generate narratives for users on a monthly basis, he says. The product might also be attractive to companies with “large volumes of content” who want to get that content into homes and “engage with consumers more directly,” he says.
But first, just like with any app, Mylestone must try to attract a large number of users. The key, Balter thinks, is Mylestone has the potential to be a “meaningful product” that helps users connect with other people, “not just with the device.”