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Voice First: what do we really need – a virtual assistant or something more? 

A virtual assistant that can misunderstand you more effectively.  So perhaps you never liked asking Siri questions, partly because the answer was often a website you peer at on a phone.  How dumb is that?  Siri was created a long time ago, but it really got its name when it was introduced into the iPhone in 2011 and dubbed an ‘Intelligent Personal Assistant’. Maybe there is a Siri improvement you wanted that will be available sometime in the fall in iOS 11.  Maybe you want Siri’s English to be in Chinese, French, German, Italian, and Spanish.  Maybe you don’t care because you are too embarrassed to speak to Siri in public settings, like meetings, and prefer the auto-correction of your mediocre typing.  Or maybe you are excited now, because Siri may, just possibly, soon work with other apps. Woohoo! 

Following Siri, which Microsoft must have thought was a hit, arrives Cortana in 2014. And in case you couldn’t figure out what to do with it, or felt silly talking to your laptop, you could always type commands into a box, like ‘Remind me to…’ Initially, people were confused by its utility and poor accent-interpreting capability, including the Microsoft CEO in a widely viewed failed demo, but apparently it has fielded 6 billion voice queries to date. No word as to the satisfaction level with the answers. So chalk one up for an Intelligent Assistant. 

Samsung watches this farcical feature creep and wants to be in on it too. Apparently, Samsung observed all of the palaver about Siri for the past year, and said, we can do this too! Make a Virtual Assistant that is even more annoying – Voilà, we will sell the Samsung Galaxy S8 which people love, but we can’t quite master English – so after you bought the phone and liked the way it works, we will force an improved, sort-of-working Bixby Virtual Assistant on you! And the joke’s on you, the buyer of the $720 phone. It updates itself at will, and takes up a screen, a button, and five apps that cannot be permanently deleted!  Presumably, context will make this virus, uh, software, better than the others -- able to answer a question that is related to the previous question.

Amazon enters – and on its own platforms, wins the sociability race, for now. Like Siri, Alexa can tell you a joke – what a relief. Jokes are apparently an important demonstrable and comparison-ready feature. But Alexa can also play your music, particularly everything you bought for yourself or your mother.  It can read you a book – you don’t carry it with you in a laptop or a phone, it is in the home, and as far as that goes, is outselling Google’s also-ran, the Google Home.  For those that are persistent, master the setup and integration with all of this-and-that Internet steps, it does not have to have a software update on a device to become smarter (unlike Bixby, Siri, Google Assistant, and Cortana).  Perhaps the demos of the future for all of these will be about helping aging boomers remain longer in their homes. (Ha!) Perhaps that is the test in the senior-related market – can Amazon’s Echo Show (pun intended) blend into the older adult home -- or is it a security risk?  Maybe those that follow -- will be more purposeful, like Nucleus Life, and thus will develop a greater understanding of the older adult market.

Comments

Laurie, you always say it like it is! There are definite advantages in using Voice to activate IoT devices in the home of seniors and particular people with disabilities (Blind/Tremors/....). BUT in reality as you stated extremely well in your comments - does it work well enough yet 'not to piss people off', is it totally efficient enough to work 'out-of-the-box',...? Voice is only one link in the chain of managing devices, what about having to go to Menus, what about the behavioral changes expected of the users - learning curve? For example, when it comes to people with disabilities, how easy is it to manage CC or DV just with Voice, for example on the Comcast Xfinity Voice System? Yes, it is the beginning of a new 'era' but until they close-the-loops, there are many bumps in the road that may turn people off to using Voice Control features.

Putting a voice interface on a system is one thing.  Having a system worth talking to is another.  Virtual assistance technology is about getting rid of the smartphone and providing services integration as a service. Who is building something older persons can use in their daily life and want to talk to?  What have we learned from the failure of the smartphone, that will now help us succeed with personal assistant technology? Anyone who believes that older people are the problem and easier to use interfaces are the solution has learned nothing.  

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