Jan 2

Alexa versus Siri – you said what?

Category: technology,thoughts

For a while now I’ve had an Amazon Echo which is powered by Amazon’s Alexa platform in my living room and for much longer Siri on my phone. Having the two is interesting to see how each of them behave in different situations, which bot understands what I’m saying versus the others. Now while Alexa doesn’t always understand generally it isn’t offensive (usually isn’t offensive anyway [NSFW]), Siri on the other hand will quite happily quip back at me something snarky.

This difference in behaviour can be attributed to Apple perhaps trying to give Siri personality but every so often they don’t pull it off more. Siri by nature is the platform I use when I’m driving in my car or out and about. Some days in the car Siri is wonderful and will understand me perfectly. Other times Siri has issues understanding which is annoying. However there are times when Siri thinks it understands what is going on but get’s it totally wrong. Here’s a simple case where I’m trying to compose a message to “Yuwen Ying”. Siri every so often messes this up and politely informs me that “You don’t have a contact called U.N.” but this case was unique. After misunderstanding who I wanted to send the text message to it eventually determined I said “You when you”. Now I can certainly see how it got to “You when” and it shows that it corrected the second part to “when you” which again makes sense. What bothers me about this is how it responds.

Siri telling me that I'm

I’m certainly entitled to the opinion? I’m trying to send a text message to this person! It’s not an opinion, it’s a persons name. These sorts of smart remarks are frustrating when it comes after Siri misunderstanding what I want it to do multiple times. The other pain about this situation is that Siri jumps out of sending a text message and drops the message entirely. In this case it’s not so bad because I’ve barely gotten Siri to understand to whom I want to send the message. However other times I’ve had this happen where I’ve had everything lined up and it misunderstands “Send”, goes off on a tangent, gives me some snark…and drops the message entirely! I then need to redictate to Siri everything from scratch. It’s the wrong response especially in a situation where the device is clearly struggling to understand what is going wrong.

On the other hand the alternative is Alexa who is always apologetic about when it doesn’t understand. And it doesn’t understand a lot of what I tell it. As a comparison I usually retry what I said to Alexa against Siri which every so often works. However here’s the difference: with Alexa there’s an app where I can give it feedback. With Siri it goes into a black hole of not understanding what I say and there is no way for me to give them structured feedback about what went wrong. With Alexa, I can go into the app, see what it thought I said, play back what it heard and then report that to Amazon so that they can make the service better.

I’ve already seen this loop in action with my own interactions with Alexa. One of the bigger uses I have for Alexa is to start and stop timers. Relatively simple but rather convenient. At one point I said “Alexa start time five minutes” and it responded telling me I had no timers. I was confused and retried with “Alexa start timer for five minutes” to which it created the timer. Today when I tried to reproduce the issue, Alexa has been updated to handle the case properly. 

Now does Alexa have a long way to go? You bet! I asked it “How long to get to Trials Pub”, an establishment in downtown San Jose and it responded with how far it was to Toronto and telling me it doesn’t know my speed so it can’t tell me how long it should take. When I asked it for directions it responded with a reply saying directions aren’t supported yet, so it’s a work in progress. Siri obviously nails this one with ease.

I haven’t tried out Google Home though I’ve had some interesting experiences in the past with Google Map’s recognition system. I suspect that Siri is going to continue to lag behind everyone else while Amazon’s Alexa platform will slowly build up it’s overall capabilities to parity and with a tight feedback loop easily eclipse Apple. Google’s got a head start overall here so it’ll be interesting to see how it goes with the various platforms but personally I’m reluctant to feed Google even more of my data. They’ve already got enough with my email and maps data, I’m not sure I want to give them anything more.

What will make or break all of these platforms is access to data and that of course will make for interesting times.

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