Moving Forward with Digital Assistants

Siri’s original developers, Dag Kittlaus and Adam Cheyer, left Apple in 2011 and took a bunch of their team with them. Since then, they’ve been working on a new artificial intelligence system, Viv, that is going to get it’s first public demonstration Monday.

Right now there is a lot going on in the intelligent digital assistant world. While Apple was early to this game, Microsoft and Google are right behind and it’s clear there’s a lot of resources from a lot of big companies being thrown at this problem.

Most surprising to me has been the utility of the Amazon Echo. I have been using Siri for years but nobody else in my family does. I think it has something to do with the slight delay that exists between activating Siri and stating a command combined with the sometimes indecipherable syntax you need to use in order to make it work. There is also that thing where Siri will perform a complicated instruction perfectly only to botch things up entirely when you ask it to tell you the weather five minutes later. All of this has improved over the years but there still is enough resistance that my non-nerd family members are not interested.

The Amazon Echo on the other hand has no such resistance. I frequently witness my family turning on the lights, checking the weather, and otherwise interacting with Alexa. To me this is the closest glimpse we’ve had yet to a future with reliable intelligent digital assistants.

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about why the Amazon Echo is “stickier” for the non-techies in my house than Siri. One argument is because the Echo is always on and listening (which is kind of creepy). You don’t need to push a button to get it started. I’m sure that’s part of it, but I believe the real reason is because it’s both easier to talk to and more responsive.

Amazon’s Echo does a better job of parsing the question and giving you useful information. Too often, Siri gets confused because you don’t ask the question just right. Also, the Amazon Echo has never done that thing where it seems to understand me perfectly only report it can’t answer my question because of some mysterious problem out there on the Internet … somewhere. Either way, in the Sparks household the Amazon Echo has been a clear winner for my wife and children.

So getting back to where I started with all of this, we’re getting our first demonstration of Viv on Monday. Your guess is as good as mine over what the long game is for Viv’s developers. Maybe they want to wow us so some big company throws large sums of money at them. However, they already did that with Siri.

I suspect they are more interested in making something that they can develop without the limitations that come with tying their wagon to a large corporation. Keeping Viv independent allows them to make deals easier with third parties so it’s easier to add functionality. It also lets the developers be, generally, more nimble. The downside is that it’s going to be harder to activate. One of the big attractions of Siri is that it is everywhere on iOS. If I have to go open an application to get a digital assistant working for me, I’m much less likely to use it. (I downloaded Microsoft’s Cortana app and I still only launch it for the purpose of testing Cortana.) I think members of my family would be even less likely to launch an app for a digital assistant.

Either way, I hope that Viv is a smashing success. I want there to be a lot of competition in this space and I want these big companies to duke it out. It feels like we are on the cusp of having useful digital assistants in our lives and the sooner that comes, the better.