When Amazon first launched Alexa on its Echo device, it seemed the future had arrived. Finally HAL 9000 from 2001: A Space Odyssey and Computer from Star Trek were a reality, and we could boss them around to our heart’s content. Next came Google Assistant, Siri on Apple’s HomePod and others. Suddenly switching on your lights, playing music, locking your front door and more could be done simply by uttering it to your digital servant. Over the years, while Amazon have pushed Alexa into almost every device imaginable to get her out there, Google’s Assistant has shone out as the clear victor in terms of who is the smartest of them all. But in the two years since its launch, has Assistant got smarter? Or has it regressed away from world domination?
Smart assistants very quickly went from being a feature on your smartphone that you rarely used for fear of looking like a moron, to almost a member of the family once they moved onto their own devices. As a self-proclaimed techno-junkie, and because it was the first of its kind to be released, I quickly bought the first Echo device from Amazon when it launched and I was hooked from the off. I went through the ritual every new Alexa “owner” went though; “Hello”, “What time is it?”, “Are you Skynet?” and “Make fart sounds”.
Owning no other major “smart things” in my house, Alexa couldn’t control anything for me back then, so I used her purely for information or humour, depending on what I was doing. Then Google announced it was releasing Google Home, and in doing so taking its Assistant from my phone into my home. I’ve been integrated into the Google ecosystem since Gmail first launched back in 2004, so this was my natural next-step. I bought it as soon as I could, packed up my Amazon Echo and gifted it away. Now we were talking.
The Future Was Finally Here
Google Home could do it all; answer questions far better than Alexa could – owing to the fact it could utilise Google’s web search better, speak in a voice I was more familiar with, because I’d used it on my Android phone and generally sounded more polished and, well, alive.
Over time, other smart stuff manufacturers realised they needed to integrate their devices into either Google’s Assistant or Amazon’s Alexa (or both, if they could), and they did. Before long, I blew as much spare money as I could at smart lights, smart locks, smart thermostats and more until the only thing I really had to get up off the couch for was to go to the toilet (that day will come).
Back then, the media became obsessed with telling us all that these new assistants would eventually take over and enslave the human race, that it would become Skynet from the Terminator Franchise and ultimately destroy us to save itself and the planet. But as the years progress, and we expect these assistants to evolve over time into something smarter and smarter, we can’t help but feel like this AI evolution is stuttering. For me, I’m finding Google Assistant’s ability to keep up with itself even to be failing.
When I opened my first Google Home, I was amazed at just how much it could do; answer anything, control my home, speak in a natural, human manner, and so much more. I expected this to only get better over time. But like many of Google’s projects, the evolution has struggled to keep up with our expectations. Delighted with my first unit, I bought more and more for every room in the house. When Google launched a different version, I’d buy that. When they announced their £399 Google Home Max, I packed up my Sonos speakers (who later went on to incorporate both Amazon Alexa and Google Assistant) and the more I bought, the more I loved it all.
But over the past few months, I’ve started to notice Google Assistant getting sloppy; it fails to respond to its commands (I can’t believe I’m typing this, like some slaver), it misunderstands what I’m saying, when I ask it to play music, it tends to either play a weird, live version of what I’ve asked for or another song and artist altogether, and just generally misbehaves. One of the things Google promised, as did all the others, was that its voice assistants would get smarter over time, learn from its own history, adapt to its user and essentially evolve itself to suit its users. That doesn’t seem to be happening.
I’ve recently found myself opening my smartphone, launching a music app and casting it to my Google Home Max speaker – a task far more time-consuming that speaking my request, simply because in the long run, I’ll get to listen to the song I want quicker than telling Google Assistant a few times because it hasn’t understood me or responded initially, then telling it to stop because it’s misunderstood, then eventually realising I’m easier just doing it from my phone and negating the smart speaker’s existence altogether.
Wondering if I was alone in this – perhaps I can a faulty speaker or setup – I took to the web, only to discover I was far from alone in my frustrations over recent weeks and months. Google has a tendency to not respond to media stories surrounding issues with its technology and this isn’t always a bad thing idea for them; they’re often working on fixes in the background and then release them without statement – the issues go away, people stop complaining and there isn’t much of a news story to have to worry about. Hopefully, that will be the case this time around.
The media will never tire of warning us about the perils of technology taking over – it’s sexy news that we all love to read and fantasise about. But so far, it seems digital voice assistants aren’t quite ready to start sending themselves back in time to kill the leader of the future resistance. That said, if you’ve seen any videos of Boston Dynamics’ robots (a company now owned by Google, along with artificial intelligence superpower DeepMind), perhaps we’re not quite as far from AI taking over as we may think.