The Virtual Assistants in Your Future

July 2016

Here's the ultimate test for today's new virtual assistants: Why did the chicken cross the road?

Siri says, "Sorry, too easy." A bit lame.

Cortana says, "Oh, did she? I hadn't heard." Better.

Google Now says … nothing. Just gives me a list of web results.

Amazon Alexa says, "To get to the other side." Very original.

Hound says, "To get to the other side." No personality.

Seriously, though, virtual assistants are wonderful. If I have a dentist appointment coming up, I can say to Siri on my iPad, "Make a dentist appointment for next Thursday at 3 pm." Siri replies, "OK, I set up your appointment for July 14, 2016. Shall I schedule it?" I say, "Yes," and presto: the appointment is entered into the Calendar app on my iPad Air, my iPad mini, and my iMac.

I invoke Siri just by holding the Home button on my iPad, and can use it to do calculations, convert currencies and measures, check the weather, get directions, get sports scores, send text messages and emails, create reminders, set an alarm, search the web, take notes, request songs, get weather information, and much more. All just by speaking.

Siri is one of many. Virtual assistants are not only proliferating on smartphones and tablets, but also desktop computers and even in the living room.

As I write this, Apple is expected to announce they will be bringing Siri to the Mac with the next upgrade to the operating system this fall — and that they'll be taking Siri to a whole new level of ability. Cortana, Microsoft's assistant, is available on smartphones, tablets, and Windows 10 computers.

Amazon's Alexa was the first virtual assistant for the living room. Alexa is the virtual assistant in the Amazon Echo, a $180 cylinder 9 inches tall and 3 inches in diameter that includes speakers and a microphone. You can ask Alexa to play music, tell you the weather, order a Uber taxi, control your smarthome devices such as light bulbs and thermostat, read to a book or article to you, convert measures, set timers, get sports scores, play quiz games, tell a joke, and more.

The device uses "far-field voice recognition" and can hear you from over 30 feet away, even if it's playing music on its speakers. You can try a web version of Alexa at echosim.io.

In May, Google announced Google Home, its voice-activated virtual assistant for the living room that's about the size of a grapefruit that will be coming out later this year. It will have many of the capabilities of Amazon Echo, but with one big advantage: Google's database of information on you.

As you use Google's search or Gmail or Google Maps, you're creating a small universe of information about yourself. This information is how they decide what ads to show you when you browse the web. It also provides context, such that Google searches will be more likely to give you the results you're looking for.

Called Google Now, Google's intelligent assistant, which is already available on mobile devices, will power Google Home.

As I write this, there are rumors that Apple is also working on a device for the living room.

Mobile devices, desktop computers, living room accessories — virtual assistants are suffusing our tech environment. And they're getting a lot smarter, as they increasingly adopt artificial intelligence.

For example, you can use complex queries on the Hound app on your smartphone, even following up one query with second. For example, you can say, "Where is the Golden Gate Bridge?" And then follow that up with, "Show me pet-friendly hotels near there with 3 or more stars under $200 excluding bed and breakfast."

Yep, Hound can understand that, and will return a list of hotels.

Or you can ask, "Show me coffee shops nearby," and then follow that up with, "Which ones have WiFi and are open after 7 pm on Sundays?"

Facebook, of course, isn't standing by idly while others compete to have the best virtual assistants. Facebook's approach is "chatbots." They're building intelligence into the Facebook Messenger texting app so that you can speak a wide variety of requests, including getting specific bits of information as with the other assistants above.

The big difference, though, is that Facebook is opening the chatbots to all comers: businesses, app developers, vendors. You'll be able to make a restaurant reservation or get customer support, just by asking the Messenger app. Facebook says that over 10,000 developers are currently building chatbots that will be available within Messenger.

Google is working on something similar, called Allo.

The bottom line, however, is that these virtual assistants can tell a pretty good joke. Here's one from Cortana: Two silk worms were in a race. They ended up in a tie.


© 2016 by Jim Karpen, Ph.D.

E-mail Jim Karpen