Virtual assistants have been around since 2011, when Apple introduced Siri into its iPhones. At the time, Siri was in a class by itself; now, Google, Amazon and Microsoft have all released voice-powered, AI-enabled assistants of their own. As part of our work for clients on the Future of AI (there's an ebook excerpt here), Firebrand Group investigated which of today's virtual assistants are the best, and I thought it might be helpful for you to know which of the major players are providing the best VAs.
The one that's been receiving the most buzz lately, Amazon's Alexa is available on a variety of Amazon devices, including the Echo (a bluetooth speaker), Fire tablets, and Fire TV, as well as some home devices, watches, and phones. While Alexa is available on devices with screens, it is for the most part used for voice commands, which limits its usefulness as an assistant. For the most part, Alexa seems to excel when given simple commands -- what is the weather, what do I have on my calendar -- and is great for shopping on Amazon or integrating with other smart home devices, but that does mean its usefulness is limited to more domestic settings.
Unlike Alexa, Siri only exists as part of the iPhone or iMac, but it does have an interface; in other words, it is capable of pulling up results from the internet or showing directions on a map. Given how much time people spend on their phones, and how much information is stored on it, Siri is a pretty effective personal assistant. You can ask Siri to schedule appointments, make notes, call or text someone, send emails, check the weather, do math, perform searches -- the list goes on and on. Ultimately, the downside of using Siri (apart from the occasional misunderstanding) is that, unlike Google or Microsoft, Apple relies more on third-party applications (like Google, Yahoo mail, or Shazam) to carry out certain functions. This can make it seem like a patchwork of different apps instead of one seamless assistant.
Microsoft's Cortana is available on any Windows 10 phone, computer and tablet, and can also be downloaded as an app on the iPhone. Unlike Siri and Google Assistant, Cortana asks you about your interests, and will show you a daily snapshot with the weather, any appointments you have, and news related to your interests. And Cortana can be set up on both PC and smartphone, ensuring that information and updates reach you no matter where you are. Cortana is capable of doing the same things as Siri (although with varying degrees of success). Its ultimate pitfall seems to be that its ability to understand is more limited than Siri and Alexa, although the ability to type queries makes that less important of an issue.
Available on some Android phones and smart watches, Google Assistant is also available on Google Home, an Alexa-like speaker and even as an app on the iPhone. Google Assistant allows you to seamlessly integrate all your Google apps -- search, Gmail, Calendar, Maps, and so on -- in one place. If you have a flight to catch, for example, Google Assistant will look at the confirmation email and create an event in your calendar, and send you an alert when it's time to leave. It can also tell you the traffic conditions, the weather when you arrive, and perform translations. In various head to head tests, Google has come out on top. The benefit that Google Assistant has over Siri, Cortana, and Alexa is that many people already use Google to perform a myriad of tasks, whether it's a simple search or for keeping track of appointments. An assistant that can fuse the apps people already use into one intuitive interface has a definite advantage over its competitors.
A Final Word
Of course, there are a multitude of VA-related tools we can't cover in one piece. One personal favorite is x.ai, a personal assistant that helps you schedule meetings. Hound is another: a voice-powered virtual assistant app that can handle complex queries. Whichever VA you use, once thing is certain: it's just the tip of the iceberg which respect to how much AI-powered software will become a part of our daily lives.