Monday, May 7, 2018

Alexa now available as a default assistant on Android →

Redditor itsallaguesswork discovered a new setting on his Pixel 2 this weekend that allows the selection of a default smart assistant. Most notably, Alexa is one of the new choices. Simply download the Alexa app and select your preference in the appropriate settings menu (depending on your device). Once done, you can invoke Alexa by name or by holding the home button.

Google Pixel 2 settings menu. Credit: Redditor itsallaguesswork
Google Pixel 2 settings menu. Credit: Redditor itsallaguesswork

This is a small change, but one that could potentially have huge ramifications. Starting today, Alexa has essentially escaped the confines of the living room and can be triggered on a phone without the hassle of diving into an app. It will be interesting to see how many people switch from Google Assistant and Bixby.

Thursday, April 19, 2018

Siri isn’t dumb, she’s less consistent

Everyone loves to hate on Siri. The common trope equates to her being dumb or not up to par with the other voice assistants (largely being Alexa and Google Voice Assistant). I believe this perception largely comes from Siri’s greatest opportunity for improvement: general knowledge. 1

Table Stakes

Let’s first address the table stakes among digital assistants — weather, sports, news, smart home functions, etc. I feel they all do these jobs equally well, with little differences.

For example: let’s say my living room Lurton Caséta dimmer is at 5%, but I want to raise it to 100%. If I tell Alexa to “turn on the living room lights”, Alexa is smart enough to interpret my intent as a human would and just raise the lights. A human might have more snark at first. Siri, on the other hand, does not understand my intent. If I issue the same command to her, she does nothing because the lights are already on. As if a child, she might as well be saying “the lights are already on, duh”. I must specifically ask Siri to “set the lights to 100%” or some variation.

It’s a little annoyance, and although I prefer Alexa’s handling of the situation, there is still feature parity here.

General Knowledge

By contrast, I feel this is the main area in which Siri lacks consistent feature parity with the others. Even in my own circle of friends and family, the questions that fail the most fall into this category. These are usually questions I would never ask Siri myself, since I know she can’t answer them accurately (if at all). Here are just a few examples, comparing Siri and Alexa.

Are tomatoes a fruit?

  • Siri: Wolfram Alpha results with no direct answer to the question.
  • Alexa: “Yes, a tomato is a fruit.”

What is the largest freshwater lake in the world?

  • Siri: “Here’s what I found on the web.”
  • Alexa: “The largest freshwater lake by area is Lake Superior, at 31,795.5 square miles.”

What time is Brooklyn Nine-Nine on?

  • Siri: “Sorry, I couldn’t find anything called ‘Brooklyn Nine-Nine’ playing nearby.”
  • Alexa: “Season five of Brooklyn Nine-Nine airs on Fox Tuesdays at 9:30pm Eastern and 8:30pm Central.”

Now, I will say that Siri answered most of my general knowledge questions correctly (about 70% of them) as I was looking for the above examples. However, every time Siri doesn’t answer correctly or in an unexpected way, trust in the service takes another hit.

Siri’s negative perception will continue to increase until Apple addresses this area and others (hopefully in some capacity at this year’s WWDC). This isn’t Siri’s only problem, but I think it’s the biggest one. Severely reducing dumps to web searches (like above) is another one. As Siri and voice input are increasingly positioned at the forefront of new computing methods, the last thing Apple needs is to be thought of as behind. Does this all make Siri dumb? No. It makes her less consistent.


  1. General Knowledge. /salute 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Alexa’s unprompted laughing →

Shannon Liao for The Verge:

Over the past few days, users with Alexa-enabled devices have reported hearing strange, unprompted laughter. Amazon responded to the creepiness today in a statement to The Verge, saying, “We’re aware of this and working to fix it.”

Later on in the day, Amazon said its planned fix will involve disabling the phrase, “Alexa, laugh,” and changing the command to “Alexa, can you laugh?” The company says the latter phrase is “less likely to have false positives,” or in other words the Alexa software is likely to mistake common words and phrases that sound similar to the one that makes Alexa start laughing. “We are also changing Alexa’s response from simply laughter to ‘Sure, I can laugh,’ followed by laughter,” an Amazon spokesperson said.

This is pure hilarity, and it proves we give these personal assistants way too much credit. We’re in the relatively early days of this kind of interaction, yet we get upset when they can’t understand us perfectly. Of course they can’t — they’re computers!

A hotter topic than ever right now is that Siri is dumb, but in my experience, Siri, Google Assistant, and Alexa have very similar abilities when it comes to understanding and interpreting.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Monday, August 14, 2017

David Pogue Reviews Bixby →

David Pogue from Yahoo gave Samsung’s voice assistant Bixby a run-through and it doesn’t impress much. Here are some particular downsides from Pogue’s article:

Bixby is especially pathetic when it comes to navigation.

  • What pizza places are nearby? (Bixby: “Looks like there’s a connection problem.”)
  • Find me an Italian restaurant nearby. (Bixby opens Google Maps—promising!—but then stops, saying, “It looks like we experienced a slight hiccup.”)
  • Give me directions to JFK airport. (Bixby: “Which one?”)
  • Give me directions to the Empire State Building. (The “slight hiccup” error message appears after 10 seconds.)
  • In all cases, Bixby is very, very slow—plenty of videos online show how badly it lags behind Siri or Google Assistant.

It’s also fairly confusing. Most response bubbles include the baffling phrase, “You’re in native context.” And every so often, you’re awarded Bixby XP points for using Bixby. Samsung suggests that if you accumulate enough, you’ll be able to earn valuable prizes. OK, but if you have to bribe your customers to use your app…

This is hilarious. Samsung is resorting to gamification in hopes it will entice people to use Bixby. This is so incredibly ass-backwards. Imagine if you could win Apple points for using Siri or Amazon credits for using Alexa 1. How about this, Samsung: build a worthy product that compels people to use it because of how great it is, not because they can win imaginary points.

Like I’ve said before, no virtual assistant is perfect, but Samsung is incredibly late to this game. Since there’s a precedent now where every manufacturer needs their own virtual assistant, I suppose it’s no surprise. I’m sure Bixby will get better with time, but imagine how far ahead Alexa, Siri, and Google Assistant will be when that happens.

Side note: my favorite blunder from the video is when Pogue asks when Abraham Lincoln died and Bixby responds “Which One?”.


  1. On second thought, Bezos should get on this. 

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Feature Request: smart assistant adaptive volume and stringed requests for smart home devices

We’re gradually increasing our reliance on smart assistants, but they are far from perfect. Going hand-in-hand with them is the next mainstream computing input method: voice. Sure, voice control has been around for a while, but we’re turning the corner on it being used in extremely meaningful ways throughout the course of our daily lives.

As a big proponent of voice input and smart assistants, here’s a couple improvements that would be a next step in the right direction when it comes to improving the interaction experience.

Adaptive Volume

Picture this: your little one just fell asleep, and you go to turn on the nightlight in the room with your Amazon Echo like you always do. It goes a little something like this.

You: Alexa, turn on the nightlight — oh shit…
Alexa at full volume: OKAY!!!

Now you have to coerce your little one back to sleep. This can apply to using Siri on the iPhone or iPad, too. Sometimes I want to set the Good Night scene using Siri on my phone, but Siri’s volume is set differently from the system volume, so I’d rather not chance what it was last set to.

Ideal Solution

These assistants need to find a way to adapt their volume for the situation, based on multiple factors. If it’s late at night and quiet, it’s probably safe to say I don’t want to hear any feedback at all from Alexa, Siri, or the like. Maybe at a volume level of 3-4, but definitely nothing louder.

Conversely, if there’s a lot of noise in the room, bump that volume up so I can hear the response. All of these devices have multiple microphones built in, so it’s just a matter of software.

In short: don’t take my manual volume change as law if it doesn’t make sense for the situation. This is an instance where a computer should be allowed to decide something for us.

Alternate Solution

Give us a volume request modifier. Two examples:

You: Alexa, quietly turn on the nightlight.
Alexa changes to low volume: “Okay.”
Alexa then reverts back to original volume.

Or

You: Alexa, loudly, what time is it in New York?
Alexa changes to full volume: “THE TIME IN NEW YORK IS 11AM!!!”
Alexa then reverts back to original volume.

Stringed Requests for Smart Home Commands

Pretty straightforward. Let us string at least two commands together for controlling smart home devices. Perhaps I want to selectively control two devices at a time with Siri that aren’t part of a scene I’ve already configured. For example:

Hey Siri, turn off the foyer and living room lights.

Or

Hey Siri, unlock the door and turn on the porch light.

This would be a huge step in improving the manual control experience of smart home devices, instead of one singular command at a time.