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I live alone, so I am generally fairly quiet, bar occasional shouting at my cat when she shreds the sofa. But lately I have become much more vocal thanks to the rise of artificially intelligent assistants.
The ability to ask your phone questions by speaking, through Siri, OK Google or Cortana, has been around for a while, but I have not noticed many people doing so in public. Perhaps that is because you look ridiculous issuing voice commands to your device in the pub or office.
It is different in the home. I have used Cortana for some time now, via Windows 10 on various laptops and desktops and on phones. When I say “Hey, Cortana” at home, at least three devices spring to attention.
More recently I have been using Google’s Pixel XL phone, which includes the first mobile iteration of its most evolved version of the Google Assistant (think of it as a smarter version of OK Google, which most Android users are familiar with). I also recently added an Amazon Echo to the collection of technology in my flat.
The Echo, and its smaller sibling, the Dot, are the first assistants to break free of the phone and become devices in their own right. Google launched its standalone assistant, Google Home, in the US last autumn and it will arrive in the UK this year. Several manufacturers including Lenovo also introduced artificial intelligence assistant devices at the CES technology show in Las Vegas this month.
As well as these AI assistants, we are seeing a rise of bots on services such as Facebook Messenger, where they will send you a boarding pass if you are flying with KLM, or help you complete the sign-up process on match.com.
The point of all of these assistants is to make us feel connected to the products whose friendly interface they are, so that we spend more time in those ecosystems, buying products and sharing data.
It is interesting to note that Siri, Cortana, Alexa (the “personality” of the Amazon Echo) and the nameless Google assistant all speak with female voices by default. There has been much discussion about how this seems to entrench and build on the outdated but potent stereotype of women as secretaries or subordinate staff, as anxious to please — which these assistants most certainly are.
There are many examples in popular culture of robots presented as female and subordinate. From Rosie, The Jetsons’ cartoon domestic robot in the 1960s TV series, to Ava in the 2015 film Ex Machina, the gendered presentation of technological assistants and companions is deeply embedded.
Daren Gill, head of Alexa product development at Amazon, says of Alexa’s gender: “We did a lot of testing for the voice; there were a lot of rounds of review about which voice was the most pleasing and what did the users like the most.”
Gill points out that the name “Alexa” comes from the library at Alexandria in ancient Egypt, which was dedicated to the Muses and formed a repository of knowledge. However, he adds that people do anthropomorphise devices.
“Personality is something we’ve really worked on,” he says. “There are many requests for Alexa to sing happy birthday and to say good morning. That’s powerful and new in the world: it’s part of the family.”
As with any new relationship, there is an element of getting to know an AI assistant. Gill says that Amazon’s telemetry shows that “there’s a lot of activity in the first two weeks to 30 days as you find out what Alexa can do”. Happily for Amazon, once that initial exploration process is over, “they settle into patterns that work for them and the numbers are high — we’re pleased with the engagement”.
The key to embedding these AI assistants in our lives is to make them useful across a wide range of activities and this is where the lesson lies for entrepreneurs. At present, my Echo is just a little gimmicky fun — although I enjoy the frictionless experience of asking Alexa the time rather than picking up my phone, or enquiring what is in my calendar for the day instead of opening Outlook on my laptop.
However, as the new year progresses, I will be able to control my Sonos music system via Alexa and my Fibaro smarthome kit. Alexa already works with a range of smarthome devices on the Samsung SmartThings platform. Turning off the lights with a simple voice command still feels like the stuff of futuristic films. Amazon has been very clever about persuading developers to build in compatibility with Alexa. “We strive to be as open as possible,” says Gill. “We want to encourage developers to use the platform.”
There are many “skills” you can add to Alexa, third-party apps that expand its functionality, from the useful — checking travel conditions and finding recipes — to the frivolous, such as quizzes or getting Alexa to meow (the latter is useful if you want to freak out a resident feline).
Articles on the web compare Alexa to the Google Home assistant, but Amazon has an advantage at the moment as it was in this space ahead of Google. With both first-mover advantage and a clear focus on getting third parties to provide increasing functionality, Amazon may well have stolen a march on Google.
If you are an entrepreneur with the advantage of being ahead of your competitors, it makes sense to consider how your product or service should work not against providers of services, but with them, to create something that becomes not just fun or useful, but part of the family — however creepy that might feel.
Apps to save you time
iOS, Android, free
Trying to wrangle several people into picking a date for a meeting or an event is painful, usually involving multiple emails, reply-all threads and calendar invites sent, declined and accepted. Doodle is a good alternative. The organiser creates a poll offering as many (or as few) options as they wish; the would-be participants are emailed and they pick their preferred dates. As participants respond, it quickly becomes clear which dates are the best for the event. There are two premium tiers, for individuals and businesses, offering an ad-free experience, encryption and, in the business version, custom domains for the web version. For most casual users, however, the free version is all you need. Be warned, though, the ads in the app are annoying.
iOS, Android, free
There are many flight-booking apps and services, all doing much the same. Hopper is slightly more useful in that it offers you a view not only of how much your flights will cost, but also how those prices are likely to move. Pick your destination, then the app offers you a colour-coded calendar indicating when the flights will be cheaper or more expensive. Choose dates and the app will give an opinion (“Book now. This is not a great price but you will likely pay more if you wait”), a prediction on how the price is likely to change over the next few weeks and options to watch the trip or to go ahead and book. It is a little lacking in filters — there is no option to search only business class, for example — but it is a good way to evaluate the potential cost of a trip.
iOS, Android, free
This is invaluable if you manage a website or blog on the WordPress platform and need to post or carry out admin tasks while on the move. The excellent app makes posting, managing users, moderating comments and viewing stats as painless as it can possibly be on a mobile device. That said, it is not perfect. Although the app offers you a tab in the sidebar for WP Admin, if you tap that you will be bounced to your browser, where you will have to sign in again and then do your admin tasks on the mobile website, which is a less than wonderful experience.