Hello, computer: As Alexa soars and Siri flags, what's next for the virtual assistant?
AI experts have their say on the future of AI and personal assistants
Watch any TV show today, and you'd be lucky to get through without seeing a spot for Amazon Echo and Google Home — usually with big-named celebrities asking their virtual assistant to help them prep a meal.
Such is the speed with which these products are evolving — and the rate at which Alexa in particular has turned into a first name term like Xerox and Kleenex. But does that mean Amazon's AI is the best — or even that smart? Experts say Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant may play at being your smart personal assistant, but they have a long road before hitting any real intelligence — even as some have a bit more spark than the others.
There's still a lot of work to be done
Apple's Siri gets the honor of the first AI, launching on the iPhone in 2011. At the time, Siri was revolutionary: Apple took Iron Man's Jarvis and the USS Enterprise's computer, and made them real. Siri held the market to itself for several years, until Amazon launched Alexa and Microsoft debuted Cortana in 2014, Google Assistant arrived in 2016, Samsung joined the party with Bixby in 2017.
Alexa and Google Assistant have taken much of the limelight this year - thanks to all those TV ads. But AI experts claim describing them as 'intelligent' is still a stretch of the imagination.
"In terms of their actual intelligence, there's still a lot of work to be done," Paul Jarrett, managing director of London-based mobile app developer Sonin App Development, tells GearBrain.
Jarrett continues: "Today, AI assistants are primarily an additional route to information gathering and can complete simple tasks within set criteria. In order to become truly intelligent, they need to fully understand the user and user intuition."
To its credit, Google has made some inroads here. When testing Assistant on the Home Mini, we were pleasantly surprised when it responded to our commands with context-relevant questions. For example, when asking about the price of flights to Geneva, Google Assistant asked if we'd like it to alert us through an email if the price changed the week we planned to travel.
Google Assistant also understands the context of followup questions. Ask 'What is the weather forecast for New York tomorrow?" then ask "Will it rain?" and Google knows your second questions is about New York tomorrow. Alexa very occasionally asks follow-up questions, but does not appear to understand, in context, if you ask her one of your own.
Alexander Potter shares the view that Google Assistant is the more intelligent of the digital assistants. But even then, Potter, who manages a startup accelerator for the London-based Allia and holds a masters degree in cognitive computing, isn't entirely impressed by any of the current AI.
"At the moment, none of them are really that impressive...yet," Potter tells GearBrain "Ultimately, they're all lacking contextual knowledge as well as the ability to infer...it seems to me that only Google has the ability to understand context, as well as what was ultimately meant."
But even Google's vast knowledge database — made up of just about everything you do online — can't help Assistant in even the simplest of situations. Assistant couldn't pull up our own search history and answer this question: 'What was the movie I searched for last week?'
As HomePod slips to 2018, Apple is even later to its own party
Without prompting, experts we spoke to referred to Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa far more readily than Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana and Samsung's Bixby. Apple, which is launching a Siri-equipped HomePod as a premium answer to Amazon Echo and Google Home, could find itself forgotten in a market it launched.
But Imran Choudhary, a technology analyst at GfK, doesn't believe Siri holds much sway as a smartphone perk. In fact, he believes the home is where today's digital assistants have the most influence.
"In the home there's growing evidence to suggest a broader set of use cases for AI assistants and Apple appears to be late to the party," Choudhary told GearBrain. "While Siri might have been first, the likes of Alexa and Google Assistant have been getting smarter and Apple is in danger of being left behind."
As we wrote this article Apple fell even further behind, announcing the HomePod, first revealed in June, will be delayed from December until "early 2018."
Improving the current crop of AI assistants, Jarrett says, will be based more on people engaging with the AI — and less on the technology inside. In essence, users will train Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and the like to make them smarter. Much like how Tesla's self-driving Autopilot feature learns through experience.
"The technology is there to support further improvements, however it relies heavily on user adoption," he says. "The most natural improvement we expect to see is more personalization and pro-active responses and suggestions."
For example, he suggests AI could "provide you with lunch suggestions when you walk out the office," he says. Or, a digital assistant, having learned your daily routine, could "make actions on your behalf such as turning on the shower after you've been for a run," he adds.
Apple's hesitance to race to market with a smart speaker, like Echo or Google Home, could be a sign that the iPhone maker is unsure of the long-term success of AI assistant in the home. After all, Siri began life on the iPhone and took several years to transition to the Mac, where she feels like an afterthought — especially compared to Alexa's purpose-built home, the Echo speaker range. But Jarrett believes that bet would be wrong, as the consumer uptake of AI in the household, which Apple has not been a part of so far, will constantly improve.
"As consumers look for quicker and more efficient ways of doing things, AI assistants become the natural channel," he says. "Whether that's finding out information, or achieving a task such as booking a hotel room, or ordering takeaway."
A question of trust
And consumer uptake, Potter believes, is only growing — even when assistants get more intelligent and issues of trust appear.
"In trust terms, there's the whole 'uncanny valley' phenomenon, which means consumers will actually grow to trust these types of devices more as they increase their abilities," he says. "Until it crosses a line that makes it feel too personal...I feel most people will reach this stage when these abilities cross into family knowledge."
Fear of artificial intelligence is a hot topic, led by Elon Musk who believes it could have the power to destroy humanity as we know it. His reasoning? If we tell the AI to work as efficiently as possible, it will see sense in eliminating the irrational, emotional, mistake-prone humans as a logical step forward.
Before we get there, though, we should consider the implications of increasingly smart AI being used by people looking for companionship, or even help. Apple is currently looking to hire an engineer with a background in psychology to work on Siri. The job ad reads: "People talk to Siri about all kinds of things, including when they're having a stressful day or have something serious on their mind. They turn to Siri in emergencies or when they want guidance on living a healthier life."
Turning to a piece of software to help you through tough stages of life is a poignant thought. But there is already evidence to suggest our relationship with AI is straying far from their developers' original intentions.
Some users of AI assistants like Siri and Alexa have reportedly fall in love with the virtual butlers, and even had sexual fantasies about them, according to a report from media and marketing company Mindshare and the J. Walter Thompson Innovation Group in April 2017.
"A deeper emotional attachment is starting to develop," says the study. "Over a third (37 percent) of regular voice technology users say that they love their voice assistant so much that they wish it were a real person...Even more astonishing is that more than a quarter of regular voice technology users say they have had a sexual fantasy about their voice assistant."
Two steps forward and one step back
Just like any new technology, AI needs time before we can fully understand its use — and accept it as a part of everyday life. As smartphones had a learning curve, AI has an acceptance curve — one which varies significantly depending on who is asked, and their comfort with a human-sounding voice knowing everything about them. Many fear the consequences of an internet-connected device constantly listening, even if only for the 'Hey, Google' or 'Alexa' keyword.
The ascent of this acceptance curve will be a case of two steps forward and one backwards, says Potter. "It'll be very similar to virtual bots, in the sense that it is somewhat of a hype period at the moment, a fad," he says. "However, the most beneficial applications and use cases will remain; they won't quite be the norm I think, but neither will they be forgotten."
Jarrett agrees that people may be hesitant to leap in and use digital assistants fully today. But he sees a future where they're not just more accepted, but more influential in our lives and far smarter than the Siri we met back in 2011.
"To begin with there's the weirdness stage, where you have the innovators and early adopters [using the technology], however the majority of people still feel uncomfortable," he says. "Everything takes time to become normal…[and] AI assistants are still in the very early stages of adoption and as we become more accustomed to the technology and it becomes the norm we'll expect them to be even more intelligent."