Thursday, 24 November 2016

Battle Of The Virtual Assistants — Microsoft vs Apple vs Google

Battle Of The Virtual Assistants — Microsoft vs Apple vs Google

As predicted by Star Trek, it looks like we‘ll be talking to our computers soon. Or, more specifically, an AI personal assistant. Roland Waddilove compares the current crop

The digital personal assistant would appear to be one of the next big battlegrounds in tech, and many companies are pouring a lot of money, time, and talent into developing them. These are apps and services that are intelligent, interactive, can perform tasks that make life easier, and keep you updated with the latest information on things that interest you. The names are now pretty well-known: Microsoft has Cortana, a key component of the Windows 10 operating system; Google has Now on Android and iOS, and also Assistant in the latest Pixel phone; Apple has Siri, which is on iOS and also in macOS Sierra, the latest Mac operating system. Other companies are getting into digital personal assistants, too, such as Amazon with Alexa.

Digital personal assistants combine many different functions and capabilities. Probably the most obvious is the natural language processing and voice interaction. For years we’ve been expecting it, but now voice does really appear to be the next big development in computer interfaces. Finally, you can speak to a personal digital assistant in a pseudo-natural way, mostly, and ask questions like “Will I need an umbrella tomorrow?”

The assistants can now turn your speech into words, and then analyse them for meaning. For example, the key words here are ‘umbrella’ and ‘tomorrow’. Umbrella is linked to rain, which is associated with weather forecasts. Tomorrow is obviously a time, so the assistant looks up the weather forecast for tomorrow and provides an answer like “Yes, it will rain tomorrow,” or “No, it will be hot and sunny tomorrow.” This may be displayed on the screen, spoken out loud or both.

Information can be looked up by digital personal assistants by searching the internet, and in some cases they can display or speak the information directly. You can ask questions like “What is the capital of Australia?” You can ask “How far is it to the moon?” Say “What is the current FTSE 100 index?” The questions you can ask seem endless.

Digital persona assistants can control some apps on the computer, phone or tablet and you can tell them to create an appointment in your calendar, remind you later about something, set an alarm for a particular time, or create an email and send it to someone, and much more. The range of apps and the functions they can perform is constantly growing.

The more digital personal assistants know about you, the better they work and this is brilliant when you want information or to get jobs done, but there are also privacy concerns. There is a tradeoff between benefits and privacy and you cannot have both. An assistant or the device it is on might track your location, remember web searches, store your commands and queries, access your contacts and so on. This can enable it to perform tasks, such as showing reminders when you visit or leave a location, or email contacts without you having to spell out the email address.

Not everyone is happy with the lack of privacy and some people have turned off Cortana in Windows 10 for example. The voice interface is here to stay though and it is likely that in the future we will increasingly come to rely on intelligent assistants for many functions. You will type less and talk more.

Google Now And Assistant

Google has been deeply involved with artificial intelligence research for a few years now, and has parlayed that work into its personal digital assistants. Google voice search was the company’s first attempt to provide a digital assistant, and for a long time it has been possible to speak into a computer, phone, or tablet to search the web instead of typing your query. Google Now incorporates voice search, but it goes much further and it provides information without you asking. Now is part of the Google app, which is available on both Android and iOS. It is more integrated into Android, though, and can do more on that platform than it can under iOS.

Google Now is capable of finding information even before you know you need it. It uses the company’s search, mapping, mail, calendar, and other services to guess what information you might need and then it provides it on cards. Open the Google app and there will be one or more cards that you can browse through. For example, a card might show the weather forecast for the next few hours or the rest of the day and this is useful if you are planning to travel. You can see whether to take a coat and umbrella or sunglasses.

The app can detect the places you usually travel to and from, such as home and work. While you can manually add this information in the settings should you wish, it is often intelligent enough to work out the locations itself. Therefore, when it knows that you travel to work at 8am every day, a travel card might appear with useful information like the amount of traffic on the route if you use a car or bus, and knowing the distance and the traffic situation, it can provide an estimated travel time. This means that you only have to turn on your phone and look at the Google app to see how long your daily work commute will take, or the time it will take to get home when leaving work. There is no need to search for the information you need. This is an example of how it can provide useful information without it specifically being asked.

It can even remember where you parked your car, no doubt using GPS to detect that you are travelling at speed in a car and then becoming stationary when you park. This enables it to provide the parking location on a card without being asked. That could be useful if you are visiting a place you haven’t been before, such as on a trip.

Admittedly, sometimes Google Now is a bit spooky in the way it uses what it knows about you. For example, you might use Google on your PC to search for products, such as a new television, electric toothbrush, or phone. However, Now will regularly examine your search history and if an item you looked up changes price, such as when it is discounted in a sale, a Now card may pop up on your mobile device informing you of the price drop.

In addition to weather reports and travel information, Google Now can show local places of interest, which is useful when you are on trips and holidays and are looking for things to do. If you tell the app what sports teams you are interested in, it will keep you up to date with the latest information, such as matches, scores, players and so on. Cards are displayed whenever there is relevant news and there is no need to specifically search for it.

In the latest update to the Google app is support for offline voice actions and the device it is running on can be controlled. For example, it is possible to play music, turn on the wi-fi, turn on the torch, and perform other simple actions. For example, tap the microphone in the Google app and say ‘Play some music’. You can use lots of variations of this such as ‘Play rock music’ or another genre, or you can specify your favourite artist, track or playlist. This feature makes use of Google Play Music and you either need to have your own music on the phone or tablet, or subscribe to the Google music service.

Google Now is not just for Google apps and others can interact with it. For example, Spotify can make playlist suggestions, Airbnb can show rentals you might be interested in, Strava fitness apps can show updates like weekly progress reports, there is stock market price information and the share prices of companies can be tracked and more.

The launch of the Pixel phones might mean an eventual end to Google Now. The Pixel incorporates a new assistant, which is basically more powerful and more capable than Google Now. It is built into the new Pixel phones, but the company has said that Assistant, for that is its less-than-imaginative-but-at-least-descriptive name, will be available for other devices next year. It is not clear whether this will be a separate app or whether the technology will be incorporated into Now as an update.

Google Now is a phone and tablet app, but Assistant is a technology that can be built into others things, such as the new Google Home wireless speaker. You can interact with it by speaking naturally and it can play music, get the information you need, perform actions on other devices like turning on network-connected lighting or heating, or playing something on TV through a Chromecast dongle.

Assistant has more intelligence and greater capabilities, so if you enquire about local restaurants, and one sounds like it could be good, you can then use it to book a table. At least that is what is promised. A lot of the functionality is still in its early stages and, of course, it requires links with other services. For example, the restaurant would need to be online and able to respond to the Google Assistant booking request for example.

10 Funny Things To Ask Google Now
1. Do a barrel roll
2. What’s the loneliest number?
3. What does the fox say?
4. Beam me up Scotty
5. Who are you?
6. Who’s on first?
7. What is the Bacon number of [actor’s name]?
8. Make me a sandwich
9. Roll dice
10. Up up down down left right left right

Microsoft Cortana

The development of Windows 10 seemed to spark Microsoft’s interest in digital personal assistants and artificial intelligence, and Cortana was built into the operating system from the start. Although it is primarily thought of as a Windows 10 feature, Microsoft has released Cortana apps for both Android and iOS. However, if you visit the app store on your phone or tablet you will find that they are not available. At the moment it seems that Cortana on mobile is really only an option if you live in the US, and availability is not as universal as Google Now.

Effectively, with the failure of Windows phones, Cortana is now really just for for desktop PCs. However, the digital assistant is steadily improving and is able to listen to your spoken instructions and carry them out. Voice is the primary interface with Cortana, but in addition to carrying out actions by interpreting spoken commands, it can also produce a stream of information that is relevant to you and which depends on your location, interests and preferences – all in a similar way to Google Now.

To set these up on your Windows 10 PC, click on the search box in the taskbar and then click the Notebook icon. In the Eat & Drink section you can tell Cortana how often you like to eat out, the time you normally have lunch, whether you are a vegetarian, how far you are willing to travel, and what types of food you like best. Cortana will then display cards with nearby restaurants that match your preferences from time to time. That’s a fascinating idea and the suggestions are pretty good.

Events cards can show local events that are about to take place, such as sport, music and the arts so you don’t miss them. Turn on Films & TV, and cards can then display show times you might be interested in. The Finance cards can be configured by adding the companies you want to follow on the stock market and you’ll see the latest share price for them on pop-up cards. Cortana decides when it is best to show them.

Getting around cards show travel information like routes, times, and traffic. They can be configured to show either driving or public transport, and you can be reminded when to set off for work or leave to go home. It is just a gentle reminder rather than a jarring alarm. On the go cards are similar and, when they are enabled, they can suggest things when you leave for work, arrive at work, leave for home, or arrive at home. This would obviously be more useful on a mobile phone that is permanently on and is less useful on a laptop PC that might not be. It still has its uses, though.

News cards can be configured to show the latest stories on topics that interest you. Broad categories can be selected like UK news, world news, business, technology, sports and a few others, or you can add specific topics, which can be on almost any subject. Just enter any keyword and you will see news stories on cards in Cortana.

Several of Cortana’s cards that provide handy suggestions and useful information are only really useful if you travel. Some cards don’t work on desktop PCs because you don’t leave or arrive at places, the restaurants around you never change and neither do the places of interest. This is true of Google Now too, but while Google’s app works on all Android and iOS mobile phones, Cortana does not. If you travel with a laptop and use it out of the home or office, then you can get some of the benefits from travel-related information cards, but Cortana would be so much better on a mobile.

Cortana is not just a stream of pop-up information cards, either. It is also capable of performing many common tasks on your computer. The voice interface is an alternative to using the mouse, keyboard, or touchscreen. For example, you can create or view calendar appointments by speaking to your Windows 10 PC. For example, say ‘Hey Cortana! Make an appointment for tomorrow at 11 o’clock’. You can also view calendar appointments by asking Cortana to show them. Emails can be created by saying to Cortana ‘Create an email to Bob Smith’. Upon hearing this, Cortana will open your email app, create a new email, and add Bob’s email address is added to the To box. This function requires you to use the Mail app in Windows 10, rather than web mail like Gmail in a browser, and Bob Smith’s email address needs to be stored in the People app. You can also read emails with a command like “Show me emails from....” and name any contact in the People app.

You can turn wi-fi or Bluetooth on and off with a command like ‘Turn on Bluetooth’. Get directions and maps with commands like ‘How long will it take to get to London’, or ‘Show me a map of...’ followed by the place. Music can be played and you can say things like ‘Play music...’ and specify an artist, album, track, or playlist. Cortana opens the Groove Music app, searches through your library for the specified music and then begins to play it. conveniently, Cortana also understands pause and stop commands, so you can easily control the music – providing it can still hear you, that is!

10 Funny Things To Ask Cortana
1. Can I change your name?
2. Who is your boss?
3. How old are you?
4. Are you intelligent?
5. What’s up?
6. Can you speak Klingon?
7. How do I look today?
8. Knock knock...
9. Are you sleeping?
10. Can you sing?

Apple Siri

You might think that Apple invented the core concept of the digital personal assistant when it incorporated one into the iPhone 4 five years ago, but Siri was originally just an app in the iOS App Store. Apple saw it and liked it so much, it bought it. The original developer had plans to create versions for other mobile operating systems like Android, but those were scuppered when Apple took over the reins and lined his pockets.

Google Now works on everything, Microsoft has versions of Cortana for non-Windows platforms (although, as we’ve discussed, they’re not widely available), but Siri is available only on Apple devices. This digital personal assistant has been on the iPhone and iPad for half a decade now, but was only recently added to Apple Macs with the latest release of macOS. However, it is now integrated into the firm’s desktop OS in a similar way to Microsoft’s Cortana.

The lack of Windows and Android versions of Siri limits the number of people that have access to it, but plenty of Windows users have iPhones and iPads, and they will be familiar with Apple’s digital personal assistant. Instead of being a separate app, Siri is built into iOS and holding down the home button on the iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch activates it.

The one feature that stands out the most with Siri is the genuine attempt to give it a personality. It can actually be funny and entertaining thanks to those doing the programming. Cortana can be fun too, at times, but there doesn’t seem to be a lot of personality in Google Now, which just gets on with the job. There are hundreds of amusing things you can say to Siri – like: ‘Will you marry me?; ‘When will the world end?’; ‘Is there a Santa Claus?’, ‘May the force be with you!’, ‘Blah blah blah’ – to  illicit an amusingly dry response. In fact, we’ve listed 10 of our personal favourites in the box out at the end of this article, look...

Apple clearly wants Siri to be entertaining, but it does have many serious uses alongside the funny responses. You can call people by telling Siri who you want to speak to, for example, and no number is necessary if the person is a known contact. Siri can post status updates to Facebook and Twitter – you just need to say ‘Post to Facebook’, upon which you are asked what you want to post and can just dictate a message.

Siri can interact with most Apple apps on the iPhone, iPad, and Mac. Calendar, Notes, Reminders, Clock, Contacts, iTunes, and Maps are all supported, for example. This enables you to set alarms and timers, create appointments in the calendar and reminders for later, store notes, play music, or view maps and get directions based on your current location. You can also access some settings, control Bluetooth and wi-fi, or you can turn on Do Not Disturb mode. Of course, all of these various tasks can be carried out using the voice interface and using fairly natural language.

Siri, like all digital assistants, can be quite dumb at times. It can also be very clever in some circumstances, though. For example, ask Siri to ‘Find beach photos’, and it will open the Photos app and display all photos taken on or of beaches. You could also, for example, ask it to display all your cat photos; in fact, you could request it to filter by any of 4,000 or so objects it can recognise as appearing in your photographs (actually, to be fair, it’s the Photos app that can recognise objects and scenes in images, Siri just asks it nicely).

If you want to search the web, you can say ‘Google...’ followed by the subject. Siri opens the Safari browser and displays results from the Google search.

10 Funny Things To Ask Siri
1. Will you beatbox for me?
2. What is the best operating system?
3. What is 0 divided by 0?
4. What is your favourite movie?
5. Tell me your story
6. OK Google
7. I’m naked
8. Which came first, the chicken or the egg?
9. Why are fire trucks red?
10. What is your favourite song?

Other Digital Personal Assistants

Google, Microsoft and Apple are not the only companies creating digital personal assistants and Amazon has Alexa, which is built into some of its products. For example, there has been a lot of praise for the Amazon Echo multimedia speaker that has voice control. You can speak commands and ask questions from across the room, even while it is playing music. Say things like ‘Wake me up at 7am’ or ‘What’s the weather like in London’, and many other commands and requests for information.

Alexa is intelligent, but the speaker does not have a screen, so the information it provides is spoken. The voice interface is its main interface, although there is a mobile app that can be used to display information or to access certain features. Alexa inside the speaker can be very useful when you want to get news, traffic, weather and sports news. It is possible to connect to other devices in the home from WeMo, Philips Hue, Hive, Netatmo and others, so you can turn down the lights for example.

The new Amazon Fire TV Stick also has Alexa built in and there is a microphone in the remote control. This enables you to perform searches for movies and TV shows without having to fiddle with the buttons on the remote. It can also be used to interact with some other companies – for example you can order a pizza or a taxi.