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The battle of the digital assistants

In those days, if you talked to machines, people might think you were insane. But today, we speak to machines all the time; be they…

In those days, if you talked to machines, people might think you were insane. But today, we speak to machines all the time; be they your smartphones, gadgets, the refrigerator, or anything, to have them do things for us. You speak to them; they talk back to you and/or carry out orders for you. You give them commands (again by speaking to them), they respond by speaking back to you or simply carry out your orders. You can even enter into conversations with some of them, or ask them to tell you some jokes. Some of them can instantly answer questions on mathematics, unit conversions, weather, sports, and the stock market. The tools could potentially be great for learning.

Of course, I am talking of digital (voice) assistants (personal assistants). Virtually every big high tech company has its own: Amazon’s Alexa (basically a wireless speaker), Apple’s Siri (iOS), Google Assistant (Android smartphones), Microsoft’s Cortana (Windows smartphones), and Facebook’s M. Also on the horizon is Viv, which is being developed by the original creators of Siri. 

In the 4 July 2016 article in this column in Daily Trust, I reported on the comparison of the capabilities of these assistants as carried out by Brian X. Chen of Cheatsheet.com. The categories covered include music, productivity, travel and commuting, dining, entertainment, and sports. On a scale of 4, Chen grades the assistants as follows: Google, 3.1; Siri, 2.9; Cortana, 2.3; and Alexa, 1.7. Facebook’s M was not graded because Chen was denied access to the assistant. He feels that M is not yet as developed as the others, with the suspicion that that a person handles most of the questions that he posed, rather than AI: “Humans are on the other end of the puppet strings handling tasks that artificial intelligence cannot!”

Moreover, Google Now – now called Google Assistant, or just “Google,” is judged to be the best for travel and commute-related tasks, as it gave useful information on traffic, providing voice directions and a map. When asked for plane tickets, it gave a starting price and information on the duration of the shortest flight. Siri (Apple) is the best for productivity tasks, including calendar appointments and email. It could schedule a meeting, using the information on your calendar, send an email, and read the most recent email aloud. Chen points out that the other assistants could complete only some of those tasks. The performance of Siri on music-related tasks is also judged to be good, but not as impressive as Amazon’s Alexa.

Chen finds Cortana (Microsoft) to be “mediocre” across the board: “The assistant faltered when asked about flight information, couldn’t offer traffic estimates, and offered directions to the wrong destination.” However, Chen reports that Cortana performed well in sports’ news. “Alexa (Amazon) is basically a small box (“speaker”) that you speak to,” in Chen’s words. He rates Alexa to be the best at music-related tasks. “Unlike Siri, Alexa could play a specific music station on Pandora upon request. But she was less helpful at other common tasks, and couldn’t offer traffic estimates for any location other than the one fixed location in the app (like your office).” Note that Chen’s evaluation is quite subjective and may not represent any consensus.

The issue of privacy is on everyone’s mind, so you might want to know which of the assistants is most considerate in this regard. Assistants need access to your information in order to do what you ask them to do. For example, they need access to your contacts so they can send messages for you. Also, they need your location in order to find businesses near you, and need access to your calendar, so that they can add events. In short, to get the best from a personal assistant, you need to invariably give up some of your privacy.

I personally find the assistants to be quite useful. I routinely ask them to give me the maps of countries I am not quite familiar with, and they always oblige. Also, for demo purposes, I ask Siri (iOS) and Google (Android) to fetch me a particular mobile app that was developed by a company I am affiliated with. No problems!

There are new entrants into the world of digital assistants, the most notable being Bixby by Samsung, which came with the release of Galaxy S8 on 21 April 2017. Incidentally, being essentially an Android phone, S8 also supports Google Assistant! With Google’s reported launch of Korean-speaking assistant on 13 July 2017, the battle may be on between Bixby and Google Assistant, at least in South Korea. It’s not clear who will come out on top: Google can certainly leverage its massive data and software expertise; hardware giant Samsung may win at being able to use voice commands to make a phone call, open emails or apps. On the sideline in South Korea is Clova, an assistant being introduced by the local giant Naver, to take on Alexa by Amazon. 

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