What’s New with Your Voice Assistants?

Siri Passive Aggressive - Flickr

When Apple opened Siri to developers last year, that was the first step in making the voice assistant a viable competitor to Google Assistant, Alexa and Cortana. This month, Apple allowed developers to help Siri manage to-do lists, take notes, display QR codes and more according to Wired.

Even though Siri already resides in 375 million iPhones, iPads and Macs, Apple is more aggressively inserting Siri into your life. Before, Siri cooled its heels until you summoned it. Apple wants to make it a little more proactive. A new “Siri face” on the Apple Watch will display things Siri thinks you need to know—calendar appointments, reminders, the apps you check most frequently. Siri will watch as you browse the web, building a profile of your interests and activity to make it more useful in recommending articles and sending notifications.

With iOS 11, Siri evolves into more than a voice assistant. It pervades everything that happens on your device, whether you notice or not. When you open Mail, Siri sorts it so the important stuff appears up top. Siri can handle real-time translation, a remarkable achievement even in the few languages it supports. Siri keeps all your data in sync across devices, and works everywhere you need it.

The clearest indication of Apple’s increased confidence in Siri is the new HomePod smart speaker. In-home voice assistants are difficult to get right. They must handle multiple voices, often talking over each other and any background noise. They must respond clearly and correctly, because people quickly grow impatient with a system that doesn’t work. Yet this 7-inch tall speaker—which Wired reported sounds brighter and louder than a Sonos Play:3 or an Amazon Echo—will soon play prominently in people’s homes. It features some controls on the device, and you can use AirPlay to select music, but it’s very much a Siri machine. All this is happening now, because voice recognition and natural-language processing only recently achieved the accuracy and reliability required.

Apple tried to approach Siri as holistically as possible. Rather than do absolutely everything half-well, forcing users to learn a complicated vocabulary (“Alexa, let me talk to Nest”), Apple tried to go deep and then wide. It has been working on teaching Siri how to understand a user’s intent, what the person meant to say and not necessarily the specific words. It wants Siri to only do things it could do well. That hasn’t always panned out, of course—lots of people sneer at Siri because for a long time it couldn’t even handle basic tasks. Now, at least Apple believes it can. And as a result, Siri is starting to conquer the space on, in, and between all of your devices.

The Established Competition

What about Google Assistant? Google Assistant is Google’s latest iteration of an assistant. It’s considered an upgrade or an extension of Google Now – designed to be personal – as well as an expansion of Google’s existing “OK Google” voice controls.

For anyone who has been using an Android device for some time, you know that the Google Now feature quickly pulls out relevant information for you. It knows where you work, and it knows your meeting locations and travel plans, the sports teams you like and what interests you. This data is presented to you in cards and through reminders on your Android device.

Google first unveiled Assistant at Google I/O in May 2016. The company launched it on the Google Pixel and Pixel XL phones, brought it to Google Home and then Android Wear 2.0. At the Google I/O 2017 developers conference, Google confirmed it plans to roll out Assistant as a separate iOS app. Although Google Assistant is becoming a multi-platform voice assistant, it won’t work like it does on Android devices due to API restrictions.

Amazon and Google are thinking along the same lines. Amazon is planning to bring its talkative voice assistant to your iPhone and Android smartphone, according to a high-ranking executive. Currently, the Alexa smartphone application is more of a utilities app to help you manage your skills, profile, etc. The new app will bring Alexa capabilities to your smartphone.

Perhaps you’re curious about new Alexa capabilities on the Echo. With Amazon’s new Speech Synthesis Markup Language that the company introduced last month, Alexa can now whisper, vary its speaking speed, and bleep out words. You can also make free phone calls to other Echo or Alexa app users.

For Cortana fans who want something like Echo or Google Home, you should be pleased that Microsoft has partnered with Harman Kardon to create Invoke. So, you will soon be able to voice control your music and smart home, make and receive hands-free calls with Skype and get answers to your questions on a Cortana-based device. Unfortunately, the release date has not been announced yet. You have to register your email with Harmon Kardon to find out when Invoke will be available.

Voice assistants continue to make everyday tasks a little easier by doing them for us or entertaining us while we do them ourselves. Whether you prefer Siri, Alexa, Cortana or Google Assistant, you definitely have some new enhancements to explore.

Related posts:

Apple and Google Vie with Amazon for Your Smart Home

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Ryan Lahti is the founder and managing principal of OrgLeader, LLC. Stay up to date on Ryan’s STEM-based organization tweets here: @ryanlahti

(Photo: Siri Gets Passive Aggressive, Flickr)

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