Guys, I don’t know if you’ve noticed yet, but we’re living in the future. Holograms are real, trucks are driving themselves, and people have robot arms that they can control with their minds. Advances like these are coming so rapidly that they’ve become commonplace, making it easier than ever to take technology for granted. Consider the smartphone; it’s transformed from a simple mobile communication accessory into a science fiction multitool. And it isn’t stopping there. For years we’ve talked through our phones, and now we’re starting to talk to them. Voice assisted Apple Watch is one particular product trying to make the break from communicating with our fingertips to talking to our machines like they were people. Users can now break from viewing the world through their screen and take full advantage of the futuristic artificial intelligence that seemed to become ubiquitous almost overnight.
Right now, millions of phones around the world contain an artificial intelligence known as Siri - a benevolent HAL 9000 analogue designed to follow vocal instructions and carry out basic tasks. Only Siri isn’t really an artificial intelligence (AI). She’s more of an Intelligent Personal Assistant (IPA), which, as it stands right now, is basically a more personable version of Let Me Google That For You. While she can respond to a very limited logic-tree-style set of commands, she’s more popular for her novelty than her functionality, giving rise to a wave of imitators and would-be substitutes. Even though Siri only takes up roughly 700 MB of memory, some users find other personal assistants much more appealing, and use backend methods to remove her to free up room on their smartphone. Now more and more devices are getting IPAs of their own, giving Siri some serious competition.
Cortana is a sassy, well-spoken, Windows-exclusive IPA based on the video game character of the same name. Besides being loaded with easter-eggs and Halo references, Cortana makes it a point to learn details about her user, applying that information to better contextualize web searches and notifications. For example: Cortana might remind you that your favorite sports team is playing, or warn you of upcoming traffic conditions before a trip. Using geofencing, she can even suggest that you purchase certain items whenever you’re near a business that provides them.
Currently the most popular Siri alternative (if only because Android is the most popular iPhone alternative), Google Now has all the same practical functions of any other IPA, but is driven by the power of Google’s context-sensitive search engine. Instead of just waiting to answer voice commands, Google Now anticipates potential requests based on user preferences and search history, combining this data to create a list of cards featuring services, information, and reminders that users might need throughout the day.
Of course, not everyone is comfortable letting Big Brother Google get intimate with their personal information. For those android users looking to become less reliant on Google services, many phone manufacturers offer hardware-exclusive IPA alternatives. For Samsung Galaxy users, S Voice provides the same basic functionality of an IPA, but also allows users to define their own custom “wake-up command” (such as “Hi Galaxy,” or “Work, you piece of crap”). Beyond this, however, S-Voice does little to distinguish itself from its competitors. Unfortunately, not all of these assistants are remarkable in their own right.
For those who prefer Blackberry devices, Blackberry Assistant is specifically tailored to suit the needs of career professionals, and designed to handle business communications and scheduling with ease and precision. It’s also powered by the WolframAlpha computational engine, which it can use to provide statistical & data analysis, step-by-step solutions to problems, and more. Just don’t expect it to know any knock-knock jokes.
In spite of the resulting wave of uninspired Siri clones, competition continues to breed innovation, like in the case of Soundhound’s IPA, simply called “Hound.” Hound is in beta right now and doesn’t feature any witty Siri-isms, but what it lacks in personality it more than makes up for in sheer computational strength. Able to decipher complex, multi-layered phrases in milliseconds, Hound can answer questions like “What is the capital of the country in which the Space Needle is located?” or “How many days are there between the day after tomorrow and three days before the second Thursday of November, 2022?” almost instantly.
Setting itself apart from the all the mobile-device-bound IPAs is Amazon’s Echo, an IPA for your home. The Echo responds to “Amazon” or “Alexa,” and can hear commands at great distances thanks to its seven-piece microphone array. While Echo’s output is audio-only, it can respond to voice commands with services such as news, weather, and local radio broadcasts, as well as streaming music from Pandora, iTunes, and Amazon Music. It’s functional and reliable, but like many of the other examples before it, it sincerely lacks personality; something that Siri and Cortana have in abundance.
With voice-assisted products becoming more normal, a new smartphone etiquette may need to be considered. Some users of the Apple Watch have described an appreciation for the product, but that having to talk to a machine in a crowded house or apartment can be a little embarrassing to some users (or off-putting to their roommates).
Author: Jesse Snider