Alexa and Assistant Square Off

In the past month or so I came to own Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant devices. I purchased a 7 inch Fire tablet on a Black Friday special to run a home automation system. Then I purchased both a Google Home and Pixel phone. The Pixel and Home arrived this week, meaning I now have both Alexa and Assistant at my disposal; of course I immediately wanted to do a side by side test.

I have tried to trick Google Now. I mentioned in an earlier post that Google wasn’t stumped when I asked it to show me pictures of Blue Helmets. So, how would Alexa and Assistant do when faced with the same questions?

Experiment Design 

Since I cannot figure out how to wake Alexa on the Fire tablet by voice (whether this is user error or a short coming of the system is beyond me, but a problem with the device either way), I decided to use Assistant on my Pixel, so that I could summon both by touch, to make the experiment as equal as possible. 

I set up the test by drafting a set interactions (commands and questions) and expected outcomes, grouped them by theme. I included some informational questions as well as commands to perform tasks for me. Also, there are some functions (e.g. email) that I wanted to test but couldn’t because I don’t have the Fire logged into my Google account.

I administered the test by posing each interaction, one by one, alternating between systems, using the same wording for both.

Results

Both systems could satisfy the basic informational interactions, such as providing the date and headlines. They also could perform the task interactions like setting alarms and timers. They aced the conversational test, where I first asked who the queen of England is, followed by asking her age. Google Assistant did a little better with many of the challenges, for example, while both systems could set a ten minute timer, Google Assistant accurately gave the timer a label to boot.

Screenshot of Google Assistant.
Google Assistant understands the figurative reference to UN troops.

Amazon Alexa used Bing to power its searches rather than Google, as Assistant did. Assistant had no problem with translations and it handled transportation questions with ease, even automatically launching Maps. Assistant got the Blue Helmets question, no sweat, but Alexa was flummoxed.

Amazon Alexa tripped up when it came to describing Blue Helmets as UN peacekeeping forces.
Amazon Alexa tripped up when it came to describing Blue Helmets as UN peacekeeping forces.

Alexa has Amazon’s product catalog behind it, and immediately followed up my battery challenge by asking if I wanted to place an order (when I said “no” to the first product offering, it moved on to another battery listing). Google simply pulled up a link to Amazon.

Scores

Of the 25 interactions I drafted, I was able to pose 20 in the test. Alexa got 12 correct, or 60%, a D-. Assistant got 18 correct, earning 90%, an A-. These findings are consistent with other comparisons I’ve read, even the ratio of the scores (Assistant beat Alexa by 50%).

Verdict

Assistant has the full force of Google to respond to challenges, a decided advantage. Alexa excelled when it came to placing an order for a product, to be expected when considering the company’s core competencies. Also, although conversational capabilities were just pushed to Alexa, it did well. As its third party skills weren’t tested, I cannot speak to how well it leverages them.

All told, Google’s Assistant is superior both in what it can do out of the box and in how it does it.

In the interest of full disclosure, I own both Alexa and Assistant devices.

© Peter Roehrich, 2017

Amazon’s Alexa Strides Confidently

With CES in full swing in Las Vegas, NV, Amazon’s Alexa personal assistant is shining. Alexa debuted in Amazon’s Echo smart speaker in mid 2014, having sold some 5+ million devices. Further, awareness of the Echo among consumers is increasing rapidly, and users are finding multiple applications: more than half of Echo owners use it to get information, to perform tasks, and other functions. Alexa has been sprung from the Echo, being deployed to related Tap and Dot devices and more recently expanded to Amazon tablets. CES attendees are showcasing products that make use of Alexa: cars, phones, robotic applications, and appliances.

Photo of Amazon Echo smart speaker.
Amazon Echo smart speaker. Photo by Frmorrison.

My recent article on a virtual assistant arms race is playing out in front of us. The winner of the race, between Amazon’s Alexa, Google’s Assistant, Apple’s Siri, and Microsoft’s Cortana is a matter of perspective. System market share, user preference, and capability are viable ways to assess success. Siri (in iPhones) and Cortana (in Windows products) very well may have the advantage in market share, but we cannot know for sure as market share estimates are closely guarded company secrets. User preference is also a sticky wicket for market share reasons, but Windows and Amazon Fire phones were widely successful, and Alexa and Assistant may be very popular but have limited reach due to their implementation on select devices. System capability is perhaps the best way to define success, and several sources like Google Assistant best.

Amazon’s Alexa’s first mover advantage will prove a formidable obstacle to Google’s Assistant spread, especially to other, non-phone devices. All is not lost. With Amazon doing the hard work of boosting consumer awareness and acceptance of AI based assistants, and Android phone popularity, Google’s Assistant may be poised to ride a wave into homes, phones, cars, and more. We will, without doubt see the AI assistant arms race escalate, with more innovative capabilities coming to more devices, with benefits to consumers.

In the interest of full disclosure, I own Google Assistant and Amazon Alexa devices.

© Peter Roehrich, 2017

Should You Be Concerned About Chinese Devices?

Chinese companies’ tech and innovation is expected to shine at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show, happening now in Las Vegas, NV. Several Chinese companies have wowed the tech world recently, of note One Plus and Huawei.

The story of Chinese tech is not all roses. Famously, several years ago Lenovo’s Thinkpad shipped with spyware. In November 2016 news broke that particular Android phones carried spyware transmitting user location, texting, and calling activity to China. The purpose of the spyware remains unclear, at least publicly. We can imagine several scenarios: to support troubleshooting as the company that codes the software claims, to assemble user profiles for advertising, corporate espionage, or state sponsored intelligence gathering.

Gathering information as part of a Chinese intelligence endeavor is the most concerning. There is precedent for such data gathering: over several years the Chinese intelligence services targeted US Government databases containing personnel records, data related to security clearances in particular. While an attack on security clearance repositories has clear intelligence appeal, what about peeking at mundane cellphone user behavior? By and large, the data is probably of little use, but a spy agency playing the long game may be satisfied with a few needles in the proverbial haystack. Perhaps they are interested in mosaicing, hoping that a few of the affected cellphone users will also be in the trove of security clearance data they pilfered. The cellphone behavior data could tell them who their targets call (their relationships), where they go and when (their current workplaces), and even what they say (their interests). Of course, such an approach could be used to further corporate espionage attempts.

So, are Chinese designed or made devices a security concern? It appears to be a moot point. With so many of the devices on offer are designed or made in China, there is ample opportunity to insert undesirable applications. With this issue largely out of consumers’ hands, the better question is whether Chinese apps in the Play Store pose a threat and what steps are necessary to keep Android as secure as possible?

© Peter Roehrich, 2017

Which is better: Alexa or Assistant?

2016 saw personal assistant technology mushroom. The big developments were natural language capability and device innovation. Although market shares are closely guarded company secrets, the dominant players are finishing the year neck and neck in capacity.

Natural Language Grows

Facebook introduced chatbot functionality to Messenger in April 2016, opening it to developers. In doing so, Facebook exposed a wide audience to chatbots. While Google and Amazon Alexa have employed natural language processing to aid users for years, they had not offered conversational support: asking a question of those assistants did not ‘prime’ them for subsequent similar questions. Chatbots brought conversational interaction to the consumer writ large.

Google deployed similar conversational interaction with Google Assistant, announced in May 2016. Whether this release was in direct response to Facebook’s bots (one month prior) is mere speculation. Alexa got very limited conversational functionality in late December 2016, oddly, after the holiday shopping season.

Device Offerings Expand

The natural, conversational interaction with assistants is impressive, but its penetration is based in device availability.

At the start of 2016 consumers had one choice in personal assistant devices: Amazon Echo. True, there was Google Now and Siri (and Cortana in a very distant fourth place), on phones, but I’m speaking in terms of true assistants capable of performing tasks beyond simply performing a search. Amazon made public its Dot and Tap devices in March 2016, the same time that Facebook put chatbots into Messenger. This development had the effect of lowering the price of access to Alexa, thereby facilitating Amazon securing more users.

The devices supporting true smart assistants reached a tipping point when Google Assistant went live. Google Assistant is something of the smarter child of Google Now, and as such, Google seems to want it everywhere. To that end, Google made it native in its Pixel smartphone, launched in October 2016. Taking a page out of Microsoft’s book (i.e.: that Cortana is available for download by many smartphone users), Google made Assistant available through the Play Store. However, rather than downloading Assistant as a standalone app, Google packaged it in the (not too popular) messaging app Allo, released in September 2016. We can infer two things from this integration. First, Google reasoned that Assistant would be an irresistible lure to pull users to the new messenger. Second, and more important, it tells us that Google sees, and wants us to see, Assistant as a true virtual being to be communicated with just as like a person. This second implication is evidenced by the fact that it can be summoned in text conversation with others. Google’s jab to Amazon’s cross completely eliminates the cost burden of acquiring Assistant; it is reasonable to assume that those interested in Alexa or Assistant already own capable smartphones, either Android or iPhone. Amazon responded by rolling out Alexa to its other tablet devices.

Google’s next move in the sparring match was to roll out the smart speaker Google Home. Initially limited in functionality, although boasting the conversational abilities of Google Assistant, opening it to developers in December 2016 led to a title wave of new services.

The Winner

Having not tested either Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Assistant, I cannot speak to superiority. I recently asked Google Now “show me pictures of blue helmets” and to my delight I was shown pictures of UN troops; I hope that such perception of nuance will carry over to Assistant. In a December 30, 2016 test by Jay McGregor published in Forbes, Google Home beat out Amazon Echo, answering 50% of questions correctly vs. 35% for Alexa.

The Future

Siri may have run its course. Where we will forever be indebted to her for kick starting the development of virtual assistants, it seems to have failed to keep up with Amazon and Google. Amazon and Google have tremendous advantages over Apple in this regard. Apple is a design firm principally, while Amazon and Google are information companies. (Note that Amazon is often seen as a retailer, and it does sell directly to consumers, but it is able to make those sales only to the extent that it can understand the consumers’ queries and then present them with the products that will best satisfy the demand that drove the product search.) Similarly, Microsoft is primarily a software company, and we will no doubt see Cortana (maybe it will get a boost from being integrated into new versions of Windows) languish. It is too soon for speculation on how the competition between Google Assistant and Alexa will play out, or whether they will continue to compete toe-to-toe at all, or move to occupy different spaces. That said, we can be reasonably sure that the technology will become increasingly ubiquitous.

In the interest of full disclosure, I just ordered a Google Home device.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016.

Personal Assistant Arms Race

Coevolution occurs when the changes in a trait in a population of organism is directly influenced by the changes in some complementary trait in another population of organism, and vice versa. An evolutionary arms race is a great example of coevolution. It is a tug of war where change in one trait in a population causes a change in a trait in another population, feeding forward so that the cycle continues. These arms races are a well studied biological phenomenon. Such seems to be the case with the Amazon Echo and Google Home.

Photo of Amazon Echo smart speaker.
Amazon Echo smart speaker. Originally launched without conversational abilities, Amazon introduced limited capabilities recently. Photo by Frmorrison.

The launch of Amazon’s Echo brought us Alexa with her skills (like ordering a car through Uber), but limited natural language interactivity. Conversely, Google’s recently released Home features contextual interactivity (you can have a conversation with it rather than asking discrete questions), but performed few tasks. With Google opening Home to third-party developers, it quickly acquired capabilities to do work for the user. That brings us to the latest news: Amazon’s Echo is getting (limited) natural language abilities.

This is good news for consumers, for the tech industry over all, and even for Amazon Echo and Google Home.

The benefit to consumers are three fold. Their products will become increasingly relevant and easy to use. It also means more third party apps will come along to further increase the products’ benefits. It may even drive down price as the two technologies compete toe to toe.

The benefit to the tech industry lies in symbiosis, where the platform makes possible new technologies. Consider that Edison would not have developed the electric lightbulb without electricity; the discovery of electricity was necessary for the innovation leading to the lightbulb. More capable devices lays soil in which new technologies will be planted. 

Echo and Home can benefit from this arms race as well. Although they each may get squeezed by the other, their overall appeal to the consumer will increase.

© Peter Roehrich, 2016

Hello, World

The title says it all: Hello, world!

Consumer tech is changing our lives; it already has and will continue to. Some 15 or 20 years ago the PC caused a sea change in the economic landscape when, landing on desks, it made workers more productive. Now we carry far more powerful computers in our pockets and robots vacuum our homes. These are but examples of the innovation wave we’re riding which will further change what it means to live a modern life. 

This blog is devoted to these trends. No tech topic is off the table, but my favorites are smart homes, mobile phones and tablets, and the major tech companies like Facebook, Google, and Amazon. I’m a long time tech watcher and enthusiastic early adopter. 

Me in my “tech center”.

I’m a trained scientist and financial analyst; I’ll bring these skill sets to my posts here.