With the launch of its Allo chat platform and Pixel phones launching as well in a few hours, Google has finally joined the artificial intelligence party for good. The search giant follows in the wake of other tech majors like Apple, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook who have all introduced AI-powered virtual assistants of some sort. It appears the personal robot slaves that we’ve been promised for so long are finally here, except instead of being sexy humanoids or even tin cans on wheels, they’re simply disembodied voices that live inside our computers and smartphones. These voice assistants can all take down reminders, search the internet, tell you the weather forecast and even get you driving directions just like a real personal assistant. Here’s a quick run-through of what each of them excels at…
Siri, with the weight of Apple’s brand behind her, is easily the most famous of the new clan of robot secretaries. She has the most impressive natural language processing skills of the crop, being able to decipher commands no matter how you phrase them. So unlike the old days of voice commands, where you had to say a specific set of words in the right order to get it to work, talking to Siri is a lot more like talking to a real person. It also helps that she talks back in a rather sexy voice.
For a long time, the greatest limitation of Cortana was that it was trapped inside the rather unappealing hull of a Windows Mobile phone. It has recently been liberated though – Windows 10 PCs, Android and iOS devices can all plug into Microsoft’s AI assistant now. Cortana’s standout feature is its ability to parse queries and deliver to-the-point results. So a question about Virat Kohli’s batting average would get you the exact number instead of a list of websites. But AI assistants rely heavily on integration with their ecosystem and the fact that Cortana has been transplanted to unfamiliar locales shows – it cannot work with third-party apps or activate from any screen on non-Windows devices.
The dark horse in this race is Alexa. Unlike its competitors, she isn’t particularly mobile considering she lives inside Amazon’s Echo speaker, which is definitely a countertop home appliance rather than something you can carry with you everywhere. But what it does have going for it is that it is purely a personal assistant and nothing else. So, while most of them can be activated just by saying their name, Alexa is easily the most reliable out of the lot. It has a more limited feature set than the others since it lacks a screen, but what it does, it does extremely well. Think of Alexa as the old, matronly assistant. You might never flirt with her, but you can always rely on her.
M, like everything comes out of Mark Zuckerberg’s brain these days, is aimed at eventual world domination. It is currently powered by an army of human operators who reply to chat queries and execute commands, which means that there is little to no AI involved at this stage. But that’s why it’s also not available to the wider public right now. Facebook has plans to slowly eliminate the humans and automate the bot over the coming years. That ambitious – and potentially Earth-shattering – part of the plan is that M is planned as a prototype of sorts. The way the social network sees it, every brand we know will eventually be able to talk directly to you over Messenger.
There is no disputing the fact that the 800-pound gorilla in this contest is Google. Artificial Intelligence relies on data to learn and improve, and the big G simply has more data than anyone else. It already had Google Now, which is baked into every Android device and is therefore already familiar to a wide array of users. It has announced the Home speaker, which will take on Amazon’s Echo and Allo has now beaten M to the punch in the chat-based AI space. However you chose to interact with it, Google’s AI assistant is, hands down, the most powerful available to consumers right now since it already knows everything about you and your habits.