12162017

Skip the AI Assistants. They Aren’t Ready for Business Yet

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Artificial intelligence has come a long way. But Siri, Alexa, Cortana and Google Assistant aren’t quite ready to help you with your business needs. Here’s why you should stick with IRL assistants for now.

Everyone loves the idea of having an AI assistant. I know I did. But that was a long time ago before I had spent hours alone in a room shouting alternately at Siri, Google Assistant, Alexa and Cortana, and demanding answers. Those answers, sadly, were not delivered with much consistency.

After evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of Siri, Cortana, Google Assistant and Alexa, I’ve concluded that it’s too early for AI assistants, at least for business use. It may be that in the next several years, advancements will be made that render AI assistants more helpful, but for now, they’re more toy than tool. Unreliability is a major pitfall of all the AI assistants currently on the market, and any business user will tell you that when it comes to choosing tech, consistency is key.

There is both internal inconsistency as well as cross-market inconsistency in the way AI assistants perform (or fail to perform) tasks. And the voice recognition feature isn’t good enough on any of them for serious daily use. Cortana and Alexa, in particular, had difficulty understanding even basic questions asked under ideal environmental circumstances, but Siri and Google Assistant had issues as well.

One major flaw in the design of all AI assistants is tied to the hardware setup of the speakers and microphones. Across all devices and assistants, I found that if any sound was emanating from the device that housed the assistant, the assistant could not hear me unless I shouted at a very high volume, and in some cases, that didn’t work either. Since one of the primary features AI assistants claim to offer is the ability to play music, news and podcasts hands-free, the fact that doing so renders voice control completely unusable is disheartening.

Even if that obstacle of being heard were solved, there would still be huge challenges when it comes to each assistant’s ability to understand natural speech and deliver useful results. Each of the four AI assistants I tested had comprehension problems, with Cortana and Alexa’s problems being more extensive than Siri and Google Assistant’s. For example, after setting several reminders using Google Assistant, I asked what upcoming reminders I had, and the assistant could not tell me. Instead, Google Assistant tried to create more new reminders for me, so I tried a different approach and asked what was on my calendar, but Google Assistant doesn’t add reminders to the calendar, so it said I had nothing upcoming, even though I had three different meeting reminders set.

When I asked Siri to do things for me, such as procure airline tickets or purchase office supplies, it understood me to a degree, but its response was to Google the keywords I was saying and then show me the results. On the plus side, at least Siri used Google, because Cortana pretty much just Bing’s any request or directive you give it.

Alexa is similarly unreliable; it continually offered me movie tickets when I asked for airline tickets. It couldn’t do basic things like find restaurants near me (because I hadn’t registered on the app, a point I’ll circle back to later) and when I asked it to Google something, like Cortana, it insisted on using Bing.

Siri was the only assistant I used that could consistently find restaurants and make reservations, but it couldn’t tell me how long it would take to get to destinations, and it couldn’t give me any public transportation instructions. Alexa was great for shopping on Amazon, but it failed at almost everything else. Google Assistant was great for flight tracking, follow-up questions that relied on context and public transit directions, but it couldn’t manage to complete purchase transactions, and reminders were iffy at best.

Cortana performed so poorly across every task than I almost feel bad for talking about it behind its back. It reminds me of the uncoordinated kid on the soccer team who’s confidently running in the wrong direction, all the while mistaking his teammates shouts to turn around as supportive cheers. 

The biggest issue I have with AI assistants, as a whole, is that they’re unsuccessfully solving a problem that doesn’t exist. The companies that are pushing these assistants lean heavily on how easy it is to access things only using your voice, rather than going through the supposed hassle of interacting with a device in a hands-on way. But all of the AI assistants still require nonverbal device interaction for setup and management. For example, you can set a reminder using an AI assistant, but when the reminder time arrives, the assistant will simply play an alarm sound. To find out what the alarm is for, you must check the device itself. If you want to enable third-party app integration, go through custom voice command options or access basic setup, you must do so through the AI assistant app.

The advancements that have been made in AI assistant technology are undoubtedly impressive, and there is intrinsic value in developing AI to interact with humans, but I’m unconvinced that voice control is (or ever will be) any easier than hands-on interaction. Part of the beauty of technology is the ability to interact privately with your device, even if you’re in public. While it’s true you can access AI assistants without speaking aloud, the primary selling point has always been verbal interaction, which may be suitable for use with smart home devices but isn’t particularly useful for business. If you’re a business user, stick to an IRL assistant for now.  

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