Polygamous Siri and overly-honest Google Now: Why voice assistants aren’t so human and what that means for consumer AI

The idea that machines can be designed with intelligence and reason is nothing new. Since the 1950s, scientists have been developing the field of artificial intelligence, each with different goals in mind. In 1950, British mathematician Alan Turing created the Turing test, which has become the standard for measuring the effectiveness of artificial intelligence programs. It’s a rigorous test that no program had ever passed until “Eugene Goostman” did earlier this year. Other notable artificial intelligence platforms include IBM’s Watson, a supercomputer that just created it’s own unique barbeque sauce by referencing existing recipes. While programs like these are certainly pushing the boundaries of what people ever thought computers could do, they are a far cry from what is actually available in the hands of the average consumer. In the consumer technology world, AI comes in the form of the virtual assistants found on our phones and tablets.

We’re all slowly warming up to the idea that you can talk not only ON your phone, but TO your phone. Ever since Apple’s Siri made us feel like a witty and helpful lady was living inside of every iPhone, other device makers have been following suit. Google Now and S Voice have joined the natural language user interface game, and the competition is heating up even more with Microsoft’s announcement of their own personal assistant, “Cortana”. While all of these options are great and can save you some thumb work when setting up reminders and and the like, there is still so much that they can’t do. There are two situations that I encountered with Siri and Google Now in particular that broke their human-like façades for me, and lead me to some deeper questions about the state of consumer “AI”.

One of the most common uses of Siri is quickly sending texts and making calls without using your hands or being distracted. The commands you use to do this are pretty natural, which makes Siri fun to use, and almost like having a real-live secretary. Siri can even remember your relationships to people in your contacts book, so you can opt for “Call my dad” as opposed to “Call Michael Galayda”. Life is good when our phones know our parents, friends, and girlfriend or boyfriend. The tough thing about Siri, or any other technology, is that it will do exactly what it’s programmed to do. It just so happened that iCloud had a better memory than I did when I asked Siri to facetime my girlfriend, which resulted in this response:

siri girlfriend

Woah there. Good thing I was alone when that happened. But it brought me to an interesting point. Siri was just producing stored contact information based on a verbal command, and it just so happens that two different contacts were tagged as “girlfriend”. This little mix up exposes a flaw often overlooked with virtual assistants- no matter how human they seem, they really aren’t human at all. If I had told a real-life secretary to set a contact as my girlfriend, the secretary would have asked what happened to the other one, we would have an awkward water cooler convo, and that would be the end of it. But Siri doesn’t presume to wonder how many girlfriends I have, just that I added a new one (props to Siri for assuming I could handle more than one gf). Virtual assistants just lack the social awareness and comprehension skills that we come to expect when they sound so much like actual people.

Now onto, well, Google Now. Google’s voice assistant is very helpful for mostly the same reasons that Siri is, with the added bonus of being accessible from any screen simply by saying “Ok Google”. For this reason, it’s pretty fun and convenient to explore the Google Knowledge Graph, throwing out questions like, “How tall is Michael Jordan” from anywhere in the room while my phone charges in the corner. The other day, I was binge watching How I Met Your Mother on Netflix (definitely the best use of my time), when I started to wonder about how much Netflix was worth. I tried asking Google Now to no avail about the valuation of Netflix. Chalking it up to a lack of information or weirdly-ordered search results, I tried doing the same with several other big name companies. I figured Google Now would certainly be able to tell me something about Google, so I tried asking. The response I got was a quote from a Business Insider article, that mentioned Apple first, not Google, saying something to the effect that Apple was larger than Google, Microsoft, and several other companies combined. Not sounding good coming from Google’s own voice assistant.

All minor problems aside, the voice assistants on our phones are functional and at times quite helpful. However, none of them really stand out from the pack. It is interesting to note that they pull their information from different sources; Siri references Wolfram Alpha for factual information, and with iOS 7 switched from Google to Bing as it’s default search engine. Google Now utilizes Google search and the Google Knowledge Graph to carry out your searches and settle friendly disputes about Obama’s age and how far away the moon is. Though these applications are constantly being updated with more natural voices and added commands, there are always an infinite number of scenarios that they can’t predict or respond to correctly. While this may simply be an annoyance when trying to do a search or have a question answered on your phone, when put in the context of recent developments like Google’s self-driving cars, the implications of a misunderstood input could be life or death.

Siri and Google Now are still great and functional features, but I think that people are getting a bit carried away with how human and interactive they are. I have serious doubts about how interactive and contextually-aware Microsoft’s Cortana is going to be, because quite frankly, there are too many instances that you simply can’t account for with today’s technology. So I’ll keep asking Google Now to send my texts, but I’m not expecting it to console me after a tough breakup any time soon. I would, however, appreciate if Siri would try a little harder to know my girlfriend status, just like Facebook would.


What do you think?


Try this on your own Google Now screen: “Do a barrel roll”