Meet the Virtual Assistants: Chatty, Chatty Bang Bang

Home automation has been around for a long time, as you can see in my article on the history of home automation, but technology has marched on relentlessly and today an automated home is also one with a personality. It seems that every big tech provider now has a digital intelligence that you can have a chat with. Apple’s Siri, Google’s Google Assistant, Amazon’s Alexa and Microsoft’s Cortana.

Undoubtedly we’ll get to meet many more digital friends in the future, but at the moment these are the big names. The closest things to digital celebrities we have today, I guess.

The companies that have created these assistants have home automation aspirations for all of them, with varying degrees of success. Now that voice recognition and computer language processing is very reliable the Sci-Fi fantasy of simply asking the computer to do something like open the door or switch on the light has finally come true.

So let me introduce you to our new robot friends and maybe you’ll hit it off with one of them.

Siri

siri-fshSiri took the world by storm when it was launched as a key feature of the iPhone 4S in 2011. Apple’s promo videos showed an amazing concept of a digital assistant who could intelligently do a lot of things that most of us thought were still a few years off. When we first got our hands on Siri the reality was a little bit underwhelming, but over the years Siri has actually improved to the point where she can live up to the initial hype.

Once you actually start to use Siri she (or he, or “it”) quickly becomes indispensable for changing tracks on Apple Music or operating your phone while driving. I use her all the time to set reminders and dictate messages to people.

It’s no surprise then that Apple saw fit to integrate Siri into their HomeKit home automation system right from the start. If a device is HomeKit enabled, Siri can control it. You can ask things like “Siri, lock the front door.” and she’ll do it.

I think Siri has a bright future, but one of the big problems is that Apple generally doesn’t share its walled garden; Siri works only with Apple phones and tablets. So unless you are willing to commit to Apple for all your home automation needs, it may not be the most future-proof answer. It is slick as heck though, I’ll give them that.

Google Assistant

Google chose not to give its assistant a name although technically before we had “Google Assistant” we had “Google Now” and sort of still do. It’s best to think of the Google Assistant as an all-pervasive entity that is there wherever Google accepts voice input.

Like the rest, you can now use the Google Assistant to control devices in your home such as lights and thermostats. Like Siri, the great thing about the service is that if you own an Android phone (well, a recent enough one) you already have access to the Google Assistant. You don’t have to buy a special speaker device like the Amazon Echo where Alexa lives. That hasn’t stopped Google from creating and offering just such an Echo-like speaker mind you, it’s just that you have the option rather than a straight-up obligation.

Google being Google, you can use the assistant in a very flexible way. In fact combined with IFTTT you can create custom commands that will work with devices from Wink, WeMo and more.

Alexa

Alexa is Amazon’s rather surprising contribution to automation and home voice control. Well, it was surprising to me, since I never really thought of Amazon as the type of company that would be interested in this kind of thing. In hindsight, given the Amazon products in the past and their appetite for expanding into new product categories as they did with the Kindle Fire devices.

Unlike the other assistant systems though, Amazon doesn’t have its own phone platform so Alexa has relied on hub-speakers in order to process your verbal commands. On the other hand, there are a lot of home automation devices that support Alexa natively. It’s just as much of a walled garden as Apple is offering, but it doesn’t feel that way as you are not locked into a hardware platform or operating system.

Alexa is one of the forerunners of home automation assistants and is probably the one that was most explicitly designed for home automation. Unfortunately you can’t talk to Alexa through your phone without a third-party app at the moment, but I won’t be surprised if Amazon does end up bringing Alexa to phones natively.

Cortana

cortana-fshWhile Cortana is known to mainstream users as the Windows’ platforms digital assistant, the name comes from the massively popular Halo video game franchise. Now Cortana is Microsoft’s direct answer to Apple’s Siri. While Microsoft does have its own phone platform, things are not looking good on that front and Windows Phone is really a minority player in the smartphone segment. What this means is that Cortana really only has a presence on Windows computers. Microsoft is however determined to have her at the heart of their future smart home initiatives and the company has been a pioneer in home automation for decades. I would not be surprised if Cortana ends up being the most compelling home automation system of the lot. For the time being however, Cortana has nothing on Siri or even Alexa when it comes to home automation. I have high hopes for Microsoft as a home automation solution crafter, but for early adopters there is not much here that is compelling.

Hi Jarvis

If you’ve never seen Jarvis from the Iron Man movie, do yourself a favor and at least look up some clips on YouTube. To me an intelligent AI such as Jarvis is the dream scenario; something to take the tedium out of life and actually let us concentrate on things we really care about. These four virtual assistants are definitely a step in the right direction. They may not be nearly as smart or lifelike as Jarvis, but compared to just a year or two ago they have come forward by leaps and bounds. I don’t think it will be very long until we can all have a natural chat with one of these guys, have them understand complex commands and even anticipate what it is you want, before even you know it.

The great thing is that you can also pretty easily try any of them out before committing to a specific system. It’s only when you start to invest in locked-in hardware that things begin to get serious. So why not chat one of these friendly programs up to day and see which one takes your fancy?