What are Voice Assistants and why don’t we use them?

Over the past couple of years, it appears that I’ve gradually been employing assistants to help me get some basic tasks done. Whilst in my mind that means I am Tony Stark, with a Jarvis style butler, in reality I have simply purchased some devices that have ‘voice assistants’ built in. So kind of the same, but without the mansion, suit of iron and well-groomed beard…

First into my life was Siri, the iPhone based voice assistant that boasts the ability to make your life easier by conducting tasks through voice commands. Originally built as a stand-alone iPhone app, it was quickly bought by Apple in 2010 and then released as part of iOS 5 in 2011. Siri allows you to do almost all the same functions on your ‘iDevice’ that you could also achieve by prodding the screen – setting timers, launching apps, playing music and getting answers to general knowledge questions (essentially performing a Bing search). You activate Siri by either saying “Hey Siri” or holding the home button. Results are sometimes read back to you and other times displayed on screen depending on what you have asked her to do. I have Siri in 3 devices – iPhone, iPad and Apple Watch but rarely interact with her (voice assistants tend to ‘be female’ but that’s a topic for another blog post).

Last year, Alexa joined our household and lives in the Echo Dot that sits on the sideboard in our breakfast room. Alexa works in much the same way as Siri but has no screen to display information on the Echo Dot (although the Amazon Show device which launched in the US in April does use Alexa and has a 7-inch LCD screen). Alexa has a ‘wake word’ of “Alexa” after which you can ask her to help you with various tasks – playing music, searching the internet and even buying products from Amazon Prime. Alexa also has apps (which Amazon have renamed to ‘Skills’) that can be downloaded and activated by voice. There are many to choose from and some are better than others (if you search for ‘Facts’ Skills you’ll be in for a treat / a world of facts you never knew you cared about).

Other voice assistants are entering the market, the most notable contender being Google Assistant. So what’s the difference? Well in many ways nothing. It all depends on the ecosystems that you are a part of. If you’re Apple all-the-way then Siri is something you have in your devices anyway. Die hard Google fans will be interested in Google Assistant because of how it integrates with their other devices and applications. Alexa is slightly different in that it was originally device specific and tied to Amazon Prime subscribers.

I was thinking about this a couple of weeks ago and wondered why, with all these assistants, don’t I actually use them much?

For me, voice assistants come in handy when I can’t physically use another devise such as when I’m cooking. I often have my hands full with pots, pans and ingredients, throw a chatty 5-year-old into the mix and Alexa becomes invaluable. so being able to set tasks running whilst doing that is useful. What I don’t do is stand in the middle of a crowded place and talk into my watch! It’s not that I’m asking Siri for anything odd, but there is some social embarrassment around speaking to an inanimate object and in doing so letting others know what I am doing.

These are personal examples as to how I use voice assistants, but I was interested to think about why I use them only this way. Mostly it comes down to embarrassment, but there are a couple of other things to consider too.

Accuracy is key to the overall experience and some assistants are better than others. Siri is accurate for the most part, though sometimes gets things wrong. You can ‘correct’ her and help her to learn but I rarely bother and suspect that others don’t either. Alexa appears to be more accurate but there is no ability to correct and no option to give up and type. Confidence in the assistants’ ability is key and it might take a while before voice assistants become the default approach to tasks.

The general consensus appears to mirror my own, that using voice assistants in public is just plain embarrassing. It may take slightly longer, but using a phone (or tablet) cuts out that ‘fear factor’ and introduces a greater level of confidence in the results. Some people commented that they feel anger towards the device when the results are incorrect, or especially when the devices are ‘woken’ unintentionally. Interestingly, Alexa is programmed to respond to “Shut up” and goes back to sleep instantly.

Children also seem to play a big part in adoption of voice assistants as they ask Alexa to play music or tell them jokes. One of my friends is particularly interested in how voice assistants may evolve to accommodate children (and adults) with differing speech patterns. I suspect a lot of this comes down to machine learning and how they react to this, in a similar way to the many different languages that they will need to understand in order to conquer international markets.

So, what needs to change if we want voice assistants to become more prevalent in our lives? Well the biggest obstacle as I see it is social acceptance. As soon as people stop being embarrassed about speaking to a device, the quicker the adoption uptake will be, but this can really only evolve over time and I suspect we are still a few years away from this. Also, the accuracy needs to be as close to 100% as possible. This seems obvious, but if you ask a question which is incorrectly addressed by your voice assistant, then you have to ask again, leading to further social embarrassment.

I’m happy to use a mixture of voice and touchscreens when undertaking tasks, but I still feel that there are things that stop me from using voice assistants as much as I could.

I’ll leave you with a ‘Pro tip’… next time you’re near your Echo or Dot, say “Alexa, tell me the truth”.

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