Google’s smartest, Alexa is most impactful, and Siri is a bit of an ugly stepchild.
At least, according to one recent study on the top AI-driven voice assistants by VoiceBot, which suggests that Amazon is having the biggest impact on the voice industry. But what are the key differences driving the Google, Amazon, and Apple in developing smart digital assistants?
“Amazon has to sell us things,” Brian Jackson, an analyst from Info-Tech Research Group told me recently on the TechFirst podcast. “Google has to deliver ads to us. What does Apple have to do?”
Whether it’s about selling goods from Amazon.com or shipping more iPhones, Alexa may be extending its lead in voice-based AI assistants right now. The company recently announced new conversational abilities that integrate its voice apps — called skills — much better than before. Alexa has well over 100,000 skills now, ranging from a Lord of the Rings trivia game to games with Pikachu to premium skills like Jeopardy, which are free to install but come with in-skill purchases.
Amazon’s most recent innovation: now you can talk to Alexa without specifically having to specify what voice app, or skill, you want to use.
It’s kind of like using an app on your phone without having to explicitly open it.
“Let’s say you wanted to talk to Domino’s Pizza, right, a well-used voice application that delivers pizza to people. And you would have to say, ‘Alexa, I want to talk to Domino’s’ or ‘Alexa, ask Domino’s to order a pizza for me,’ says Jackson. “It’s going to be more conversational where you’ll be able to say, ‘Alexa, I’m hungry’ or ‘Alexa, it’s lunchtime.’ And Alexa will say, ‘Oh, well, he probably wants to order a pizza …’”
Amazon is now also equipping Alexa with, essentially, short-term memory.
So if you’ve already ordered that pizza from Domino’s, you won’t have to remind Alexa about that previous conversation before simply asking when your pizza will arrive. Alexa will remember the context and already know to check with the Domino’s skill.
Of course, Google is not sitting on its hands while Amazon is moving the state of the art in voice assistants forward. Thanks to its long history in search and perhaps the most extensive knowledge graph on the planet, Google is generally rated as the smartest voice-based AI assistant.
“I think it’s Google Assistant, just by a nose probably over Amazon Alexa right now,” Jackson says in answer to a question about which assistant is smartest. “It’s just a little bit more conversational … in testing and every sort of comparison I’ve seen, Google Assistant gets that edge for that conversational capability.”
But in spite of Apple hiring Google’s AI chief two years ago, Apple still can’t seem to quite get Siri up to par.
And that doesn’t seem to be changing in iOS 14, Apple’s new mobile operating system that will likely launch in September of this year.
While Siri now has 20 time more facts at hand than it did three years ago, Apple says, the most prominent new feature in Apple’s iOS 14 preview for Siri, with top billing, is that it has “a new compact design.” A new design might be nice — and, in fact, it is: Siri will no longer take the full screen when it’s active — but greater intelligence and usability is essential.
One of the problems, tech analyst Robert Scoble told me late last year, is Apple’s focus on privacy.
“It’s possible that Apple’s focus on user privacy is what’s slowed down its development of voice assistants,” he says. “Because Google and Amazon, I think we all know they’re as willing as anything to take all the user data they can get their hands on and teach their algorithms how to know us even better.”
That’s a hard problem to fix, because Apple’s focus on privacy is one of its key differentiators, and a major calling card in an era when “big tech” is virtually synonymous with surveillance capitalism. It’s also something that’s generally good for Apple’s customers: ordinary consumers.
Where Amazon’s Alexa shines is smart home and home automation.
Many of those 100,000+ Alexa skills control lights, garage doors, smart locks, security systems, dishwashers, coffee makers, and other home appliances. Smart speakers, too, even if sales of Amazon Echoes and Google Homes dropped in Q1. Amazon has worked hard on its strategy of getting Alexa into everything and making everything smart, and that strategy has paid off.
“You can pay as little as $4 now for this module that you just put into your dishwasher, or your microwave, or your oven, or whatever it is that you’re making, and suddenly Alexa can talk to it and give it commands,” Jackson says. “Amazon has been developing that vision of making Alexa a voice-first device that would control your smart home, be a hub to connect to all these other devices, and it’s cheap to get Alexa integrated into your smart home gear.”
What does the future bring?
Well, every assistant will get smarter over time, of course.
What you might also see is that open source AI developers will release ever-improving assistants that work only for you … not for some large company looking to sell products or place ads. One such option available today is Mycroft, named for Sherlock Holmes’ most dangerous adversary.
That’s a long shot, of course, since open source projects typically don’t have the resources of a Google, an Amazon, or an Apple.
But it’s worth noting that open source software is at the heart of billions of devices today: Mac OS X is built on an open source UNIX variant and so, by extension is iOS, the operating system. And Android is an open source operating system built on the Linux kernel. Each has a huge number of proprietary functionalities built on top of those open source roots, of course, but most of the devices on the planet run open source operating systems.
Ultimately, we’ll likely see today’s major assistants get a home in smartglasses, which are probably the next major evolution of personal technology platforms. That’s an area where Google, with the still-existing Google Glass (now for enterprise) and Apple, with multiple innovations and patents behind closed doors, might have an edge over Amazon.
“You don’t really want to be touching them that much and you can’t have that many controls on them, so to be able to talk to them and give commands to Siri, to be able to control different interfaces on it, or relay commands elsewhere, that would be useful,” Jackson says.
One thing that’s going to likely still make it challenging for voice assistants to win everywhere: it still feels weird to talk to your devices in public.
That social and psychological reality might be harder to change than innovating new personal technology platforms.
Get a full transcript of my conversation with Brian Jackson here.