Home digital assistants are ready to serve

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Amamzon Echo Dot. Photo: Crosa/Flickr

These days my house feels like Downton Abbey. I have a maid, butler or secretary in just about every room.

In the kitchen the very helpful Alexa sets timers for me; in the living room the diminutive Google Mini tells me about traffic and weather. As I go from room to room my pocket admin assistant, Siri, helps me set up appointments and reminders.

Each of these staff members is about the size of a hockey puck, a hamburger, or, in the case of Siri, a large chocolate bar. 

These are all home digital assistants. In the case of Alexa and Google, the tiny devices can sit compactly on a kitchen counter, a mantle or on a bedside table. Siri is the voice assistant built into Apple devices like the iPhone.

Each responds, in its own way, to voice commands and questions. Questions like: "Alexa, what's the weather?" "Hey, Google, what's the traffic like between here and London, Ontario?" "Hey Google, what's my schedule today?" and even more arcane and useless questions like "Hey Siri, what planes are overhead right now?" And, each can do handy things like act as voice-activated kitchen timers or play the latest CBC news, regardless of if it's the top of the hour. They can also play music from different services like Google Play Music, iTunes, Amazon Music or Spotify.

They can all control lights and appliances if you have Internet of Things devices around like Hue lights, a Nest thermostat or smart electrical outlets. So, you can say, "Good night, Alexa" and she can close the blinds, lower the temperature on the Nest and turn out all the lights save for a night light, which she can turn on.

Fortunately, since I'm not the seventh Earl of Grantham, this staff is cheap, and eats only Wi-Fi.

Over Christmas the Google Mini, from Google, was $39. These days both it and the Alexa Dot, the little puck where Alexa lives, are about $80. Siri comes free with the pricey Apple devices. Google Mini has larger brothers, the Google Home, that looks like a vase. Alexa also lives in the soup can-sized Amazon Echo and the Echo Plus. 

The Echo Dot was the best-selling product on Amazon over the holidays. In the U.S. about 36.5 million folks use voice-activated assistants, most of them owning at least one Echo device. And Alexa is already being built into other gizmos including fridges, lights and speakers from manufacturers like Sonos. Not surprisingly, millennials are the biggest users of the devices taking about 40 per cent of the user base when lined up against Gen Xers and baby boomers.

The devices are all easy to set up if you have Wi-Fi at home. The Google Mini and Alexa are configured using the appropriate Android or iOS applications on your smartphone. After that configuration, they're autonomous.

Each listens for its own name before it's primed to be helpful. Yes, that means the devices have microphones that are always on. But, in each case, the smarts to detect their names are running locally. They only share questions to the internet once their local ears perk up at their monikers, just the way hungry small dogs do.

What's remarkable about the devices from Google and Amazon is their super hearing. They each have arrays of microphones that can listen for your voice in all directions. They can detect it at amazing distances. I can be across a room, or even in another nearby room as I ask the devices something and they'll respond. Even when the devices are playing music, if you speak at about the same volume as the tunes, they'll understand what you're saying.

Siri on the iPhone or iPad fairs far worse. Those devices are meant to be used while in hand or very nearby. Get even a dozen feet away and they're like a deaf aunt.

While they're competent at a shared set of tasks: weather, traffic, news, timers, trivia, they each have their own strengths and weaknesses. Google, being tapped into the Google network, has great traffic information. It's also excellent at responding to commands like "Phone the main branch of the Hamilton Public Library." Yes, it can make phone calls and can find numbers even if they're not in your contact list.

Alexa is great in the kitchen. It can set multiple timers, which is a remarkably handy feature if your hands are covered in cookie dough. And, it boasts dozens of what Amazon calls "skills." These skills, which you need to learn the phrases for, can allow you to control appliances, play podcasts, look up your credit card balance or control your Crockpot. Outdoing Liam Neeson, Alexa has hundreds of very particular skills it's learned over its very short career as a home assistant.

Google has a series of commands it responds to but doesn't hold a candle to Alexa's talents.

And then there's poor Siri. While it's great at controlling music and opening apps on your iOS device, it has a limited range of domains it knows about or can control. It can talk to Uber, help you track health data and make restaurant reservations. It's also good at math and trivia. But it's got a lot of catch-up to do. Apple's just released its HomePod device in the U.S. But it's more of a great speaker with Siri than a real home assistant at this point.

What's it like having these devices in your house? Pretty great. Most of the time they sit quietly, but when you need to know a quick fact, hear some music, set timers or make reminders, they perk up and are on the job. It's like being surrounded by ambient intelligence, and expert help, that won't break the glassware.

Wayne MacPhail has been a print and online journalist for 25 years, and is a long-time writer for rabble.ca on technology and the Internet.

Photo: Crosa/Flickr

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