The promise of a personal assistant for every smartphone user came first with Apple’s Siri. Then followed Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa and accompanying Echo gadget and recently, Google boosted its offerings with Assistant and linked Home device.

I was never late as its almost maternal nagging managed to overcome my usual irrational optimism

All promise an easy way to speed up and organise your life, but who, outside the world of techno-obsessives, actually uses a virtual PA? I had to find out. So for a month I decided to take my fingers away from my smartphone and interact with my smartphone as much as possible by voice.

 

At the start, it was often frustrating and occasionally hilarious, but after I while, I realised there are things I will never type out again — and some that are better left to my fingers and not the less-trusty virtual PA.

You have to force yourself to use it until it becomes a habit

In the five years since the launch of the iPhone 4s – the ‘s’ stands for Siri – some people such as Cult of Mac editor Leander Kahney have been trying to speed up routine tasks and make themselves more efficient and less forgetful by using a virtual PA. But even somebody steeped in Apple technology admits it’s not always easy.

“The problem with Siri,” Kahney said, “is you have to force yourself to use it until it becomes a habit.”

Lost in translation

As I found in my month-long experiment, pushing through the early days is key. Of course, I’m not sure I should have started the exercise during a business trip. 

As soon as the plane came to a standstill I barked a request into my phone. Within seconds I had the map, opening times and contact number for Michigan’s finest turkey restaurant. Impressive, eh? 

No.

It was far from the only misunderstanding between us

What I’d asked was: ‘Check my email’ not ‘Cornwell’s Turkeyville’. It was far from the only misunderstanding between us. Fortunately, only one muddle was a real problem when, somehow, the date for an appointment was set a day late by my not-entirely trusty PA.

That was embarrassing but the result of me putting too much faith in my virtual PA. For some tasks voice control is really useful. But there have been times when I’ve felt uncomfortably like a Brit abroad repeating the same phrase over and over at increasing volume, with hand gestures, in the vain, exasperated hope of being understood.

 

I tried Google Now on my Android phone for this experiment, so with other virtual PAs your results may vary. Still, there’s plenty to be learned from my experiment. The main trick I’ve found is to pick the right tasks:

Dialling contacts: Just say: ‘Call Jane Smith’, no hunting, no pecking at the screen. It’s much quicker. You can even teach your phone that Ms Smith is your boss and just say: ‘Call the boss’.

Sending short messages: Just say: ‘Message the boss. I’ll be ten minutes late.’ You can specify texting, Whatsapp or another service. It’s that simple. And you can even use it while you’re rushing to an appointment or driving. It’s a lot safer than trying to type on the move. Also, it’s harder to send a message to the wrong person than old-school email, because  the virtual PA checks back with you every step of the way.

The technology has improved in leaps and bounds to the point where it can cope with most accents

Firing off quick emails: This is as quick as messaging, but with anything longer than a couple of sentences it’ll be faster if you type. Voice recognition is still far from perfect. It tends to work best with tried-and-tested phrases. But the technology has improved in leaps and bounds to the point where it can cope with most accents and can actually understand my voice, distorted by surgery for throat cancer, better than some people.

Making appointments: Just say: ‘Create a calendar event: Lunch with Tim Cook, Madera 1pm tomorrow’. (Make sure you include as much information as possible otherwise you can end up in a long dialogue, with your virtual PA filling in the gaps.)

Setting reminders: Just say: ‘Remind me to call mum at 7pm’ or use locations: ‘Remind me to pick up the dry cleaning.’ (But, it took me a long time to set up locations, probably because I’m not a regular commuter with a fixed route from home to work. It requires a great deal of artificial intelligence to track my movements day-to-day.)

Setting timers: Just say: ‘Set a timer for half an hour’. You’ll have set yourself a deadline for concentrated working or when your pizza will be ready. 

What to wear: Just ask: ‘Do I need an umbrella today?’ 

Checking the day ahead: Just ask: ‘What’s my schedule?’ On my business trip that gave me my flight times, Airbnb reservations, appointments, locations along with maps and transport recommendations. It even told me when I had to leave in order to get to the next place in time. (Amazingly, I was never late as its almost maternal nagging managed to overcome my usual irrational optimism about how long to allow for a journey.) 

What’s happened to the amazing artificially intelligent assistant promised by Apple and the rest?

While these functions are very useful they hardly reveal a technology that’s about to challenge a real human PA. So what’s happened to the amazing artificially intelligent assistant promised by Apple and the rest?

Hossein Rahnama, research and innovation director at Ryerson University Digital Media Zone in Toronto and founder of start-up Flybits, says scientists have been trying to create a computerised assistant service since at least 1950 with something new appearing every few years. One of the main problems up until now is these assistants haven’t been very good at understanding crucial context about their human boss.

A human PA would have known that as a vegetarian flying into London I was very unlikely to be hunting urgently for a turkey diner in the US. But that should change.

“You’re now carrying 20 to 40 sensors everywhere you go in a smartphone that has a processor a billion times more powerful than the mainframe computers of the 1950s,” said Dr Rahnama.

Last week Google announced it was making software available to developers to create apps that are aware of your precise location, your physical activity, the weather and even if you have headphones attached to your Android smartphone.

That means, for instance, an app can know you’re in a meeting and not to be disturbed or, given the people in that meeting, who is close by and might be worth inviting to join you. Then, after the meeting, it could suggest and book a nearby place for lunch based on the participants’ previous eating habits.

With massive amounts of cash being pumped into development by Google, Facebook, Microsoft and context-aware startups such as Flybits, the PA in everybody’s pocket could soon be a reality. And, if you can put up with the loss of privacy, like all the best PAs it’ll soon be a mindreader, able to make decisions and recommendations without you even asking.

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