Alexa, Google Assistant and Siri aren’t the same smart-home voice assistants they were at launch, or even a few months ago. All three AIs undergo regular updates that set them apart from one another ‚ÄĒ and keep the competition interesting for those of us following along at home (and in my case, at work, too).
Let’s explore the most recent changes to get a better sense of each assistant’s strengths, as well as where they need the most work ‚ÄĒ and what we hope to see in the future.
Amazon¬†has been a leader in the¬†smart home¬†space ever since it introduced its¬†inaugural Echo speaker¬†back in 2014. Now it has¬†seven smart speakers and smart displays to choose from, powered by Amazon’s AI assistant,¬†Alexa. Say “Alexa” to wake your speaker and then start talking. Alexa can help you with directions, order food and even¬†turn on your lights¬†or¬†adjust your thermostat.
Fortunately, Amazon recently introduced two new things that could make Alexa’s natural-language smarts even smarter.
Amazon also has an award competition called the¬†Alexa Prize Socialbot Grand Challenge, encouraging colleges to design social robots that help develop Alexa’s natural language capabilities. It’s currently in its third year;
The ¬†University of Washington, Seattle won in 2017; their social robot conversed for an average of 10 minutes and 22 seconds. By developing bots that can engage in longer conversations, the hope is that these student groups will help Amazon (and Alexa) find the best ways to maintain longer conversations of their own.
Google Assistant appears in¬†five main smart speakers and displays and Google Assistant is the brains behind those devices. Unlike Alexa, which is both the name of the voice assistant and the default wake word for Alexa-enabled speakers, Google Assistant devices respond to the phrases, “OK, Google ” and “Hey, Google.”
And, at I/O 2019, Google’s annual developer conference, the company introduced a feature where you can say “stop” to turn off an alarm without having to remember to say, “Hey, Google, stop” in your just-awakened grogginess.
Apple has been slower to embrace the smart home than Amazon and Google, but it’s still a major competitor. There’s one Apple-branded, smart home device that isn’t an iPhone, an iPod or a Mac: the¬†HomePod, which you can control with Apple’s Siri voice assistant.
While Siri tends to interface well with the¬†the third-party smart home devices that HomeKit supports, she typically falls behind when it comes to answering general questions and understanding natural-language queries.
Apple also announced Neural Text to Speech (TTS) software at WWDC, which should make Siri sound less like an AI and more like a person. We’ll see how well it actually works when iOS 13 comes out later this year.
The current state of voice assistants
Amazon’s efforts to enable multiple requests without requiring the wake word each time is a huge step forward, even if it’s currently limited to planning a night out. Google’s “stop” alarm feature shows a similar trend to reduce reliance on the wake words or phrases and allow the conversation to flow more naturally.
A 2018 study said Google Assistant was the smartest voice assistant¬†even though Echo devices sold better, but that Alexa was catching up. We may be moving into a more incremental phase of improving voice assistants, rather than the mad dash to third-party announcements we saw in the first few years of the technology. It’s these gradual changes though that will ultimately move them forward to hopefully being more useful.