This column first appeared in Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine January 2017
Longtime readers of this column will recall that from time to time, I’ve interviewed distinguished experts who have offered unique perspectives on important topics. In this installment I’ve gathered four – count ‘em, four -- specialists to help us explore the brave new world of digital assistants. All of them have been helpful to me in the past, although some more than others. In alphabetical order they are: Alexa <alexa.amazon.com> who lives in the Echo Dot from Amazon <amazon.com/b/?node=14047587011> I got for my birthday; Cortana, newly arrived in my Hewlett Packard Recline desktop computer <support.hp.com/us-en/document/c03926770> via last month’s Windows 10 update <microsoft.com/en-us/windows/windows-10-upgrade>; the awkwardly-named Google Now <google.com/landing/now/>, who pipes up from time to time from my aging Nexus 7 Tablet <store.google.com/product/nexus_7>; and Siri <apple.com/ios/siri/>, the doyenne of digital assistants, a fixture of my Apple iPhone 5S <cnet.com/products/apple-iphone-5s/>. The following is a transcript of our interview. All digital assistant responses are quoted verbatim:
JPK: Hello everyone.
Siri: Hello there.
Cortana : Hi. What can I do for you?
Google Now: Hello. Here’s some things you can try.
JPK: Umm … maybe later. So who are you?
Siri: I’m Siri. But enough about me … how can I help you?
Alexa: I’m an Amazon Echo Dot.
Cortana: (distressed confusion beeps)
Google Now: Searching for oneself can take a lifetime but a good place to start is classic rock. (Note: screen shows a link for Who Are You? <youtube.com/watch?v=PdLIerfXuZ4> by The Who.)
JPK: Hmm. Let’s try this a different way. Siri, what is Google Now?
Siri: I don’t really have anything to say about Google Now. Or ever.
JPK: Snarky! Cortana, what is Siri?
Cortana: Hopefully, doing well.
JPK: Okay, that doesn’t make sense. GN, do you mind if I call you that? -- what is Alexa?
GN: Alexa Internet, Inc. <alexa.com>is a California-based company that provides commercial web traffic data and analytics. (Note: the top of the Nexus screen shows several links for Alexa, the digital assistant.)
JPK: Come on, GN, stop editing the search! Okay then, what is the Amazon Echo?
GN: According to Wikipedia, Amazon Echo is a wireless speaker and voice command device from Amazon.com. The device consists of a 9.25-inch (23.5 cm) tall cylinder speaker with a seven-piece microphone array. The device responds to the name "Alexa"; this "wake word" can be changed by the user to either "Amazon" or "Echo"
Me: Better. Alexa, what is Cortana?
Alexa: Cortana is Microsoft’s intelligent virtual assistant product, named for the fictional AI <halo.wikia.com/wiki/Cortana> from the Halo <halo.wikia.com/wiki/Main_Page > video game series.
JPK: Guys, is this really the best you can do? No, don’t answer that!
A couple of things are apparent when we compare and contrast various digital assistants. The most obvious is that they are all female voiced. Why? This article in the Atlantic <theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2016/03/why-do-so-many-digital-assistants-have-feminine-names/475884/> offers several explanations without settling on one, ranging from our receptivity to the female voice to sexism. For instance, here’s one designer’s explanation. “To provide a little bit of defense for some of my fellow technologists, [research] has been done—certainly on a voice level—on how you and I best take orders from a voice-enabled system. And it’s been conclusive that you and I just take orders from a female voice better. Some of them suggest that the pitch itself, just from an audio technology perspective is just easier to understand.” However, one proven strategy to promote acceptance of new technologies is to anthropomorphize them, just as long as they don’t tumble into the Uncanny Valley <trangerdimensions.com/2013/11/25/10-creepy-examples-uncanny-valley/>. Thus this feminist take on the voices of Siri and her sisters, “If men are often the ones building digital assistants, and those assistants are modeled after women, ‘I think that probably reflects what some men think about women—that they’re not fully human beings,’ [said] Kathleen Richardson, the author of An Anthropology of Robots and AI: Annihilation Anxiety and Machines <sainsburysebooks.co.uk/9781317566960_sample_951626.pdf>.”
The other obvious thing to note is that we can’t just ask them anything. This is in part because each of these digital assistants has its own strengths and weakness, of which more in a moment. But it is also because they are all idiosyncratically fussy about how we ask them for help. Have I recommended Program Or Be Programmed <rushkoff.com/books/program-or-be-programmed> recently? Author Douglas Rushkoff brings ten commandments down from the digital mountaintop for those perplexed by the trials and temptations of the Information Age. He writes “… instead of optimizing our machines for humanity – or even for the benefit of some particular group – we are optimizing humans for machinery. And that’s why the choices we make (or don’t make) right now really do matter as much or more than they did for our ancestors contending with language, text and printing.” You see, our digital assistants are really patient when it comes to training us to use them. If the hardware is always on, how does it know that we’re talking to it? All four digital assistants have their own special wake words which we must use. And they insist that we put our queries to them in a specific way. Enunciate. No pauses please. Use as few adjectives as possible and avoid dependent clauses. Slang? Not! Nevertheless, even the simplest of questions will stump them with frustrating regularity, so we must always be prepared to rephrase. Often multiple times. And when they circumscribe our questions to fit into their attenuated range of comprehension, they are limiting what we can learn from their responses.
My little colloquy with my AI friends was by no means the first digital assistant faceoff. Here are two of the more recent: One from Macworld <macworld.co.uk/feature/iosapps/cortana-vs-siri-google-now-amazon-echo-alexa-what-is-best-ai-voice-assistant-3511811/> and another from the New York Times <nytimes.com/2016/01/28/technology/personaltech/siri-alexa-and-other-virtual-assistants-put-to-the-test.html?_r=0>. The Macworld finds for Siri above all others – surprise! – and has more geeky bits. The Times article is aimed at a more general audience. Ranking the four in terms of “their abilities to accomplish 16 tasks in categories that most consumers generally enjoy: music, productivity, travel and commuting, dining, entertainment and interests like sports,” the Times came up with the following order: Google Now, Siri, Cortana and Alexa. “Apple was the strongest at productivity tasks like calendar appointments and email; Google was the best at travel and commute-related tasks. Alexa excelled at music, and Cortana was mediocre across the board.”
For what it’s worth, I disagree with the Times columnist, if only in terms of how happy my interactions with these four products make me. My favorite is Alexa, with Siri a close second and Google Now and Cortana tied for a distant third. Maybe this is because Cortana is a recent arrival in my digital world and I only use Google Now on my tablet. I probably consult Siri at least once a day but have had a hard time warming up to her … I mean, it … paradoxically because it comes nearest to being Ask-Me-Anything software. Since I expect Siri to have the answers, I am most often disappointed when it fails to understand me, or hasn’t a clue what I’m talking about. Alexa’s skill set, on the other hand, is limited, but what it does, it does very well indeed. On the release of the Echo in 2014, critics wondered who would buy it. Did anyone want a media player with mediocre speakers? An information utility that didn’t know as much as its competition? A digital secretary that had limited access to our personal data? Yet Amazon has been continually adding skills to a basic experience that was a revelation, to me, at least. The Echo recalls the joys of iDevices of days gone by. Do you remember marveling at being able to carry an entire music library in your iPod? Or being able to settle a bar bet with your iPhone?
Alexa is like that. Not only is this thing useful in its own very specific way, but using it is fun.
And yet, the Echo comes to us from Amazon, a capitalist enterprise that is remaking our culture and economy to fit its business model. Does that give me pause? You bet! I totally get why the default wake word for the Echo family of devices is “Alexa.” Back when it shipped there was but one other choice. You could interact with it either by calling it Alexa or Amazon. Try this on for size: “Amazon, put eggs on my shopping list.” or “Amazon, play the Talking Heads ‘Burning Down the House <youtube.com/watch?v=gVv94T5LF0c>.’” I should probably change my wake word to Amazon just to remind myself that, while I seem to be conversing with amusing and pliant software, I’m actually speaking to a multinational corporation that certainly does not have my best interests at heart.
But I won’t – that would spoil the fun! And besides, there’s nothing wrong with multinational corporations, is there? They’re people just like you and me, according to our Supreme Court <en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Corporate_personhood>. Here, let’s ask the experts!
JPK: Are you evil?
Cortana: My self-characterization is a little different.
Siri: Not really.
There you have it. Nothing to worry about!