Virtual Assistants Have Hit a Wall—and It’ll Be Years Before They Reach Full Potential – The Wall Street Journal

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January 6, 2019 2:00 pm Published by
It has been nearly a year since Apple started selling the HomePod smart speaker, but Siri, the talking assistant that powers it and most other Apple devices, isn’t living up to its promise.
It has been nearly a year since Apple started selling the HomePod smart speaker, but Siri, the talking assistant that powers it and most other Apple devices, isn’t living up to its promise. Photo: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Every night, just before I go to sleep, I walk the dog, put my computer to sleep, flip off the TV, run around turning off all the lights, lock the front door and finally climb into bed. (There’s teeth-brushing in there somewhere, too.) I don’t exactly dread the runaround, but I’d rather have extra sleep.

And when I cozy up under the covers, only to notice the bathroom light is still on? My kingdom for a better way.

My virtual assistant desperately wants to help me. Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa, Apple ’s AAPL 4.27% Siri—even Samsung’s Bixby and others—have begun allowing users to set up “routines” that combine many actions into a single command.

Shout “OK Google, good morning!” at your smart speaker and it can (in theory) open the blinds, turn on the lights, show you traffic and your calendar and turn on NPR. Tell Alexa to start a dance party, and watch it turn on the disco ball and fire up the “Glitter and Glowsticks” playlist.

If you have the skills to set up Routines in the Alexa app—and have all the right smart-home accessories—you can yell a single command at your Amazon Echo speaker and accomplish a bunch of things at once.
If you have the skills to set up Routines in the Alexa app—and have all the right smart-home accessories—you can yell a single command at your Amazon Echo speaker and accomplish a bunch of things at once. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

These routines embody what virtual assistants are meant to do, connecting all our gadgets and services and making everything work together. All you have to do is ask. And maybe not even that—these tools aim to get to know you so well, they’ll anticipate your needs.

But these multistep systems are complicated to create, and they often require buying “smart” accessories and memorizing specific phrases.

At the CES tech show in Las Vegas this week, I expect to see a convention center chock-full of gadgets with Google Assistant or Alexa inside. But I don’t want a thousand commands for a thousand devices. In most cases, voice-controlled assistants have hit a wall where they perform a specific set of tasks well and not much else. They may be crazy ambitious, but they aren’t ready to take on real work.

Hard Recipes

If you are willing to do some finagling, there are already ways to make your devices and services work together better. Tools like IFTTT and Zapier let you connect web services, so you can automatically save every photo you share on Instagram into a Dropbox folder, or file your sales contacts into a spreadsheet. I have one that saves every tweet I like into an Evernote folder, so I can read the linked article later.

The Siri Shortcuts app gives Apple’s virtual assistant many new powers, but programming them feels like it requires an advanced degree.
The Siri Shortcuts app gives Apple’s virtual assistant many new powers, but programming them feels like it requires an advanced degree. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

If you use an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch or HomePod, Apple’s Siri Shortcuts app allows you to create quick ways to turn a set of photos into a GIF, or dial the number for whatever’s next on your calendar (a must-do for any frequent conference caller). Alexa users can open the Alexa app on their phone, swipe to the side menu and choose Routines to get started. Google Assistant users can go to Settings, toggle to the Assistant tab and tap Routines.

All these tools offer sample routines, and I recommend trying a few. If you want to create a specific routine from scratch, just know: It’s hard. It feels like putting together Ikea furniture without the instructions—most of the pieces are there, but good luck building something that stands up. Here’s a real sequence from my own action-packed life:

OK, when I get home after work—oops, have to allow location access—turn on the lights. Wait, what’s the difference between “Control device,” “Control group” and “Control scene?” And why do I have two lights called “Living room?” Then turn on the TV—oh, and the soundbar too—but shoot, that isn’t connected to Alexa yet—and tune to…oh I can’t pick a channel in here. Ah, forget it.

Cue the Orchestra

Even in the best-case scenario, these tools assume you know your needs and which tools will satisfy them. Quick, can you tick off your whole morning routine—in the right order? Or say the exact time you go to bed every night?

A sufficiently smart home should observe and adapt to your needs. That kind of proactive, thoughtful help is a long way off. It will require computers that understand far more about us than they do now.

Google’s Assistant knows a remarkable amount about you but still requires you to manually set up all your routines.
Google’s Assistant knows a remarkable amount about you but still requires you to manually set up all your routines. Photo: David Pierce/The Wall Street Journal

The companies behind these assistants say they are confident they’ll get there eventually. “The goal with many Alexa features is that they continually learn from customer usage, and become more automated and personalized, and Routines is no different,” said Miriam Daniel, Amazon’s vice president for Alexa and Echo.

But companies will need to collect even more of your activity and personal data, and have smarter machine-learning tools that can run right on your devices. You’ll also have to buy internet-connected versions of practically everything you own, and make sure everything you use works with the same assistant—because Alexa, Siri and Google aren’t on speaking terms.

We, too, are an obstacle. Suppose my assistant were smart enough to turn off my lights just before I do. That might creep me out. And what’s the point in my doors automatically locking if I still have to walk around checking that they really did?

Right now, Google Assistant’s routines are the simplest to set up, and Google’s existing trove of data likely gives it a lead in this kind of automation and personalization. (Nobody knows me like Google knows me.)

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Apple says it has been conservative about proactively pushing out notifications so far, because unhelpful prompts would be annoying, but the company is getting confident enough in Siri’s abilities to pester helpfully. The closest thing to the future we were promised is the moment Siri pops a notification onto your lock screen asking if you want to dial in to your next meeting.

These small steps in the right direction are where tech companies should focus their efforts. For years, the CES halls have been filled with gadgets that simply took a thing and gave it an internet connection. But the smart-home future is about making all those things work in harmony. And that future shouldn’t include programming them yourself.

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