Digital Assistants: When the Pretty Voice makes You forget about the Brains!

on March 14, 2018
Reading Time: 5 minutes

Since Digital assistants have entered our homes and settled more or less comfortably among us, there has been a discussion around whether or not they should be personified or if we were better off thinking of them as bots.

Brands have adopted different strategies in this area with Amazon clearly betting on personification with Alexa who not only has a name but a personality too. Apple and Siri, maybe a more abstract name and some personality. Samsung with Bixby another abstract name with not much of a personality. Microsoft and Cortana who to me seems like a cross between the game warrior and Helen Mirren. And of course, Google who just decided its endeavor in this space was not even worthy of a name albeit having personality.

Back in 2016, I was adamant that humanizing digital assistants was going to help cement the bond between the user and the agent.

 

“Personifying the assistant might also make it easier for some people to understand what exactly the role is it has in their life….Giving it a name allows for it to change shape and form like a genie in a bottle – one moment being in your home speaker, the next in your phone, the next in your car helping you with different tasks throughout the day. If the digital assistant is very successful, you might even forget who is powering it. Alexa might indeed become bigger than Amazon. 

It seems to me Google’s approach wants to make sure that, whatever I do, whatever I use, and whoever I use as a medium, especially on a non-Google product or service, I am very clear Google is the one making it possible… 

Yet, while I entrust my life to Google, I am still very aware it is a corporation I am dealing with. Building an emotional connection would be much harder. After the initial Echo set up, my eight-year-old daughter asked Alexa to play a song and, as soon as the song started, she said excitedly, “Oh mom! She is awesome! Can we keep her, please?” I very much doubt “Amazon” would get that level of bonding.”

Two years on I still think that digital assistants’ personification does indeed help with engagement, but I also start to believe this bond might make it difficult for brands to have us users go beyond the voice.

Digital Assistants are a Battle in the AI War

Digital Assistants have been the easiest way for brands to show off their smarts. The problem is that AI goes way beyond that voice that replies to you through your phone or speaker. There is intelligence impacting many aspects of the devices and services we use every day whether it is called out in marketing as “AI enabled” or if we just notice that some things are just easier to perform than they used to.

Our obsession with digital assistants, however, seem to make it harder for brands to just talk about the smarts and this is true for some more so than others.

Samsung struggled with positioning Bixby as an intelligent interface rather than an assistant. One that involves voice but that also AR. Giving it a name made it a personal assistant to some extent, which drove industry watchers and consumers into making direct comparisons with Alexa and Google Assistant even though what Samsung tried to accomplish, at least to start with, was slightly different.

In my column last week I talked about the latest “Make Google Do It” commercial and how:

“It is all about Google and the relationship you, as a user, have with Google….Interestingly, the commercial also cements the different approach Google is taking to the digital assistant by not personifying it. The assistant is a mean to get to Google a clear separation of voice and brains.”

In a way, Google separating the voice and the brains assures that users give credit to Google across the board. This means that Google can capitalize on AI even when Google Assistant is not involved, think about Google Photos for instance or Google Translate or Google Lens.

For Amazon, the dynamic is quite different. Amazon did not “own” an operating system nor controlled an ecosystem, so Alexa became all of those things. Alexa started as the point of engagement with the user and quickly developed into an ecosystem enabler in a similar way than iOS and Android have been for Apple and Google.

For Microsoft, AI is a much bigger game than Cortana has ever been. But truth be told, Cortana has not been given the attention it deserves by management. Maybe precisely to my previous point about Amazon, Microsoft does not see Cortana as an enabler but merely a feature of an operating system. While Cortana has been criticized for not being competitive with other digital assistants, it seems that most have written her off as a contender in the race. This does not seem to be hindering people’s perception of Microsoft in AI, which of course is good news for Microsoft. One has to wonder, however, if people’s believe that Cortana not standing a chance is rooted in the assumption that Microsoft does not stand a chance in the consumer market.

The Peculiar Case of iOS and Siri

Apple does not quite fit the mold of any of the companies I mention above. It rarely does, of course. Apple has a healthy and widely adopted operating system, iOS, as well as an ecosystem with highly engaged users.

Siri was born before any other digital assistant we have in our homes today. Siri was born under Apple’s believe that voice would play a role in the future of interfaces but not necessarily that voice would be a platform in itself. It was 2011 and if you go back and watch the iPhone 4s launch event when Siri made her debut you will hear a more robot voice but very much recognize the Siri of today. And for many this lies the issue: Siri has not changed much over the past seven years. While my statement might seem more perception than reality most would agree that, it feels that way when you compare the fast pace of innovation around Alexa.

Siri’s development pace, however, does not reflect the development we have seen on iOS especially since Apple has double down on machine learning and AI. The platform is getting smarter even though our exchanges with Siri do not seem to. What I think people do not seem to realize is that the brain that powers those iOS improvements is shared by Siri, but its reach goes way beyond it.

In a world where the digital assistant is not only personified but also the personification of intelligence is Apple running the risk to be perceived as being behind across the board? Siri has grown to mean more than a voice assistant. Siri is an “intelligent power” that impacts many aspects of our platform and ecosystem interactions.

Plenty of iOS users continue to be happy with their choice of phone or tablet but just decide not to engage with Siri. As Apple starts to talk about how Siri is behind some of the tasks we perform every day – like picking our favorite chill music – is the perception we have of her impacting our appreciation of other services and experiences?

It seems to me that for the industry overall advances in natural speech will take much longer to materialize than other AI-driven improvements around context, search, cameras, home automation and more. Trying to separate voice and brains might be a smart step to take, so brands make sure consumers look for intelligent solutions beyond the voice.