Remember the browser wars? At stake was who would own the portal standing between you and the Internet: Microsoft’s Internet Explorer or Netscape’s Navigator. Well, today there’s a new interface struggle emerging with three soft-spoken IPAs (Intelligent Personal Assistants) vying for your attention and two more on the horizon.
Siri, Google Now, and Cortana have already started the jostling for position, and they’ll soon be joined by new IPAs from two other online giants, Facebook and Amazon. The lineup is daunting, involving today’s five greatest superpowers in the online universe. And what’s at stake is more significant than simply a portal. The five assistants all represent a wide sidestep away from the keyboard and toward the most-human interface yet between humans and our smart machines.
Like the 150-year-old QWERTY keyboard and 50-year-old mouse, five-year-old Siri can type an e-mail or silently execute commands. You can tell Siri to “set a timer for 20 minutes,” “turn on Bluetooth,” or “text Arthur I am running late.” You can also ask it to read your e-mails or text messages to you. Once you get used to talking to it, you’ll find yourself making random requests like, “Hey Siri, remember we’re parked on the second level, 23 B.” And you won’t be surprised by its familiarity in responses such as, “For that text, do you mean your brother Arthur or Arthur at the office?”
Typing creates a monologue with your computer—simply input. With IPAs like Siri, there’s a dialogue that creates a unique connection, and that bond increases with use. One of the first things Siri does when you press and hold the Start button for the first time is ask your name or what you would like to be called. And you’re asked if Siri can access your contacts and e-mail to make the program easier to use. You also won’t have to hold the Start button to activate it if you choose to use the cue “Hey, Siri” instead. The assistant has been programmed to be nonconfrontational, nonjudgmental, conversational, and occasionally amusing. And, like all computers, it has infinite patience—as long as the battery is charged, that is.
Microsoft’s IPA, Cortana, is featured in Windows 10. Named after the character in the Halo video game, Cortana keeps a notebook of information about you that includes your contacts, calendar, preferences, and other personal information to increase its usefulness. You control how much it knows. Like Siri, the more Cortana knows about you, the more likely it is to extend the human connection. Jen Taylor, who voiced Cortana in the Halo games, also lends her voice to Cortana the personal assistant, so you hear a human voice when you engage it.
Right now, Apple’s Siri is way in front of the other IPAs in terms of recognition and users. In Machines of Loving Grace, John Markoff explains how Siri began as an app for iOS devices. Steve Jobs realized the application’s potential and acquired Siri for “possibly more than $200 million.” Then Apple brought in the development team, and it wasn’t long before Jobs ordered that all the applications on the new iPhones have a direct connection to Siri. “For Jobs,” Markoff writes, “Siri was genuinely his ‘one last thing.’” Jobs died of pancreatic cancer on October 5, 2011, and Siri was launched as a feature on iPhone 4s on October 14, 2011.
Markoff points out that Google was late to arrive in this conversation between computers and users. “Eventually, however, the search giant would come around to a similar approach. In May of 2013, Amit Singhal, head of the company’s ‘Knowledge’ group, kicked off a product introduction by proclaiming ‘the end of search as we know it.’ Four years after Siri had arrived, Google acknowledged that the future of search was conversation.”
And now the world’s largest social network has added an IPA voice to its messaging service. Facebook Messenger is testing a new service simply called “M.” David Marcus, head of Facebook Messenger, explained, “M can actually complete tasks on your behalf. It can purchase items, get gifts delivered to your loved ones, book restaurants, travel arrangements, appointments and way more.”
And then there’s Amazon’s IPA, Echo. It looks like a 9″ tall cylindrical black speaker, and it answers to the name Alexa. It can perform many tasks, including answering questions and providing the news, weather, voice-controlled alarms, timers, and to-do lists. It can play music from a wide variety of sources and control the other smart devices in your home. Seven microphones will hear your questions from any direction, even while playing music or reading audiobooks to you.
The conversation with our computers is growing louder, and the competition should soon be heating up.