It’s time to admit digital assistants are overrated – Markets Insider


Google CEO Sundar Pichai Google Assistant
Google
CEO Sundar Pichai introducing Google Assistant last
October.

AP Photo/Eric
Risberg


It was a good week for Sears.

On Thursday, its stock
skyrocketed at least 20%
on the news that it would start
selling Kenmore appliances that can be controlled by Amazon’s
Alexa digital assistant on Amazon.com.

Sears, which has
struggled to transform its image in recent years as it closes
stores and flirts with bankruptcy
, finally found the a
formula to get investors excited about the brand again.

Let’s be clear about what just happened: A troubled company’s
market cap rose tens of millions of dollars within minutes
because it partnered with a tech giant building a digital
assistant into everything from household appliances to cars.

The hype around digital assistants is real. But for now, it’s
just that. Hype. And it’s arguably the more overrated than any
other emerging technology.

What started as a convenient feature for controlling a smartphone
hands-free now has the same expectations as a brand-new computing
platform that could potentially replace it.

There’s Siri. Alexa. Cortana. Google Assistant. Bixby. Every
major tech company is working on its own digital assistant. On
top of that, there are a slew of startups doing the same, hoping
they can beat the big incumbents to the future.

Maybe we’ll get there.

But for now, digital assistants have turned into a fragmented
mess and they’re all little more than a minor convenience,
assuming they work at all. We’ve been promised a lot by AI and
voice control, but the reality hasn’t caught up to the
expectation. Even worse, there’s no way to choose an AI platform
today because everything is still in flux and each system comes
with its own caveats.


amazon echo
The Amazon
Echo.

Amazon

Want to use Alexa? Great! But it’s really only useful on the
Amazon Echo. You’ll still need to use Siri on your iPhone or
Google Assistant on your Android phone. Plus, while Amazon can
brag about having the best third-party support with over 10,000
Alexa skills, most of them don’t make sense with voice controls.
(Try ordering an Uber on an Echo and you’ll see what I mean.
It’ll test your patience.)

Want to use Siri? Fine. But you’re stuck inside Apple’s hardware
ecosystem, and Siri is still far behind its competitors when it
comes to supporting third-party services. For example, the
upcoming Siri-powered HomePod won’t let you control third-party
music services like Spotify or Pandora with your voice.

What about Google Assistant? This is my favorite assistant of the
bunch, mostly because Google is better than anyone at machine
learning and tapping into the wealth of knowledge stored on the
internet. But Google Assistant seems to be having trouble
breaking out. It’s only on a relatively small fraction of Android
headsets and had a pitiful debut on the iPhone this summer,

with fewer than 200,000 downloads
. It can’t be successful
until it’s used everywhere.

And Cortana? Microsoft’s assistant technically exists a lot of
places like the iPhone, Android, and a
futuristic thermostat
, but it’s found little success outside
of Windows 10.  

Finally, there’s Samsung’s new assistant Bixby, which launched on
the Galaxy S8 this week after months of delays. As I wrote
earlier
, it’s a half-baked flop. Bixby is pretty good for
controlling Samsung’s own apps for stuff like texting and setting
reminders, but it’s mediocre at best when it comes to other
tasks. It can’t even tell you sports scores, for example.


Samsung Galaxy S8 12
Samsung’s new Bixby assistant on the Galaxy
S8.

Hollis
Johnson


Hopefully that paints a picture for you about the current state
of digital assistants: It’s a fragmented system of competitors
trying to muscle their service onto every device with mixed
results. None of them, even the best like Google Assistant, are
smart enough to live up to their promise. There isn’t a single
one that meets the expectations the industry has dumped on them,
and choosing one of them now will just result in headaches down
the road.

We’re so early in AI and voice control that it’s impossible to
predict a winner now.

But there is one thing I can predict: Most of these efforts will
fail, and we’ll eventually see a consolidation of these services
into just one or two key players living inside all our gadgets.
This is the concept called “ambient computing,” where AI is
constantly working in the background or responding to your voice
commands. It’ll be especially useful in the car, the home, or
other times you can’t stare at your phone.

That’s years, if not a decade or more, away from today.

My best advice now is to be smart. Buying into one of these
platforms now is a gamble that the one you choose will still be
around in the future. It may be fun to control your lights and
music with the Amazon Echo now, but there’s no guarantee Alexa
can maintain its lead. Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos even admitted

we’re in the very, very early days of AI
.

Until we get there, everything you’re seeing is mostly hype.

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