Google Now, Siri, Cortana, Facebook M, Alexa – a closer look towards intelligent virtual assistants

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Google Now, Siri, Cortana, Facebook M, Alexa – a closer look towards intelligent virtual assistants.

Computers and humans link together more and more as the time flows. Nowadays nobody gets confused by people staring at screens for hours. In 2015, the biggest companies try to take this integration one step further. Five big players in IT industry: Apple, Amazon, Google, Microsoft and Facebook have invested in similar, cutting-edge and probably revolutionary projects: intelligent virtual assistants.

First of all, let me clarify the above term. Intelligent virtual assistant is an application program that can understand natural language (written and/or spoken) and complete electronic tasks for the end user. In simple words, it’s an app that substitutes personal assistants and should be able of taking care of everything you would normally order your secretary to do. It includes taking dictation, reading text or email messages aloud, looking up phone numbers, anticipating requests, placing calls and reminding the end user about appointments. As the technology advances, possible ways of usage expands. These projects thrill both customers and companies. The former ones can get a service they have never experienced while the latter will receive the new giant source of data which equals to revenue.

The main goal for all of the companies is to make assistants more contextually aware and more versatile so it can make more than recommend a place for a dinner. It comes with a prize – Google Now offers the most broad variety of functionalities, but it always runs in a background and collects data from your device and apps. It may violate somebody’s sense of privacy as it make use of your web history or location. All that information is stored in cloud and without it, Google Now loses much of its potential. And the potential is great as it can predict your wishes/intentions and show you (probably) desired card without even asking to. Collected data allows the assistant to update your calendar with meetings arranged via Email or remind you about flight whose ticket is in your inbox. Its both bothering and exciting – and living in the 21st century, you probably got used to lack of privacy. In that case, Google Now will give you the most comprehensive service.

Microsoft’s Cortana and Apple’s Siri are more personal approaches to the issue. These virtual assistants have their own personality, so you can ask them for their name, parent etc. For instance, Microsoft product’s name has its origin in well-known shooter game – Halo. You can ask her (yes, it’s her – if you don’t believe, just ask!) some witty questions like “Who’s your daddy” (any guesses?) or “What do you think of Android” and get enjoyable answers that might amuse you. Microsoft’s attitude to make the virtual assistant really personalised makes the usage more of experience rather than bare service. Unfortunately, Cortana sometimes have hard time with recognizing words from speech, but keep in mind that it’s still a fresh project and hopefully, it will be improved soon.

Apple’s Siri is something in the middle – it gives you reliable answers and has personality. Its performance is the fastest among Cortana, Siri and Google Now. Proactive feature comes with the upcoming release of iOS 9 and Siri will get boost to understanding contextual needs and habits as well as words recognition. The main downside of this project is its exclusivity – as almost all Apple’s products, it runs only on their devices. On the other hand, Amazon’s attempt to find their niche resulted in building Alexa – an app which aims to introduce Amazon to the fierce competition of digital assistants. Although it’s designated to run on Amazon Echo device, there are Android and iOS app too (mainly for connecting to the Echo via mobile). Amazon Echo is a speaker with assistant facilities and if you consider interactive features as bonus, than it does the trick. Otherwise, you might be disappointed by its limited functionality.

One company chose a different approach to the matter. Facebook has just released beta tests of their brand new product – M, a personal virtual assistant which you can talk with on Messenger. Unlike the others, you cannot command it with your voice and it’s not the only unique feature Mark Zuckerberg serves us. Some, like Apple’s Siri, Google Now, or Microsoft’s Cortana, rely entirely on technology and due to it their service is limited. Others, like startups Magic and Operator, employ people to respond to text-based requests. Services like these can get nearly anything done – but only for limited number of people and not for free. Facebook M is a hybrid. It’s programmed software backed up by human assistants and this combination makes almost every query possible to fulfill. It allows you to buy flowers for your love or book a table in the restaurant. M can advise you where to take a girl you just met on Tinder or what gift should you buy as a present. Its response time varies from few seconds to two hours; you never know whether the machine or human replies to you. As the M says themselves, “People train me so I can get better over time to help you”. Using the Messenger, an app installed on 700 million devices, M will have no problem in reaching the users. Facebook Beta tests are currently placed only in the Bay Area in the USA. Hopefully, it will soon be available for the wider audience.

The competition for the number one of personal virtual assistants is on, there is no doubt about it. According to Bill Gates, the future of computers is a device that see, understand and interact with the world and virtual assistants start to meet these requirements. The question worth considering is: how much personal data are you ready to reveal? Facebook assures us that M will not look through your Facebook profile. Still, they gather a huge amount of information and virtual assistant is a way to provide them even more.

By the way, if you wonder “Which is better, Siri or Cortana” you will find out that … “Not to brag, but apparently I’m going to save the universe in about 500 years” (according to Cortana, of course).

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