Why Is Every Company Making a Digital Assistant?

Many of the largest tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies have intro­duced a dig­i­tal assis­tant. This is due to the way con­sumer inter­net tech­nol­o­gy is chang­ing, and is set to change even more in the com­ing years.

Many of the largest con­sumer dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy com­pa­nies have, or are prepar­ing to intro­duce, a dig­i­tal (or, vir­tu­al) assis­tant. The list includes Aliba­ba (Ali­Ge­nie), Ama­zon (Alexa), Apple (Siri), Baidu (DuerOS), Face­book (M/Aloha), Google (Assis­tant), Line (Clo­va), Microsoft (Cor­tana), Sam­sung (Bix­by), Xiao­mi (Xiao Ai), plus any num­ber of less­er-known assis­tants.

Although this is part­ly dri­ven sim­ply by advances in machine learning—digital assis­tants are hap­pen­ing now because they couldn’t hap­pen before—the larg­er rea­son for all the inter­est is because of how con­sumer inter­net tech­nol­o­gy is changing—and how it’s set to change even more in the com­ing years.

Ten years ago we most­ly accessed the inter­net on desk­top (or lap­top) com­put­ers. Five years ago it would have large­ly been a mix of desk­tops, tablets, and smart­phones. Today we can add smart speak­ers, smart watch­es, and in-car sys­tems. Over the next five years we’ll see the inter­net embed­ded into more of the world around us, from ear­phones to smart home objects and smart gar­ments, to aug­ment­ed real­i­ty glass­es.

The inter­net will be with us all day, every day, every­where. No longer expe­ri­enced sole­ly through screens or speak­ers, there will be mul­ti­ple sur­faces capa­ble of pro­vid­ing access to sys­tems and ser­vices with con­tex­tu­al inter­ac­tions. You might ask a ques­tion with your voice, your key­board, or your cam­era. You might get a response through a screen, a speak­er, or vibra­tions. You might sign up for an event on your phone, ask your smart speak­er for direc­tions, be guid­ed to your des­ti­na­tion by sig­nals in your jack­et, and ask ques­tions about the sched­ule through your head­phones.

The con­troller for all this con­text will be your dig­i­tal assis­tant: a meta-oper­at­ing-sys­tem across all the sur­faces of your inter­ac­tions with the inter­net. Your assis­tant will have the his­to­ry of your behav­iour and the future of your actions. It will need to be smart and capa­ble enough to man­age your con­ver­sa­tions across the meta-OS so you don’t need to keep repeat­ing infor­ma­tion.

(For all this to work seam­less­ly you’ll have to pick an assis­tant; the con­text across sur­faces won’t be use­ful if Google has your cal­en­dar, Apple has your music, and Alexa has your pur­chase his­to­ry. At some point soon you’ll need to decide upon a sin­gle assis­tant, and that will define your future choic­es of hard­ware; there will be a cost to switch­ing.)

There’s a phrase that I’ve been repeat­ing to my col­leagues for months now: Amazon’s end goal isn’t an Echo in every home, it’s Alexa in every thing. This was con­firmed at their hard­ware announce­ment this week, which intro­duced new ver­sions of their Echo smart speak­er range, and devices to add Alexa to an exist­ing stereo sys­tem, and to your car. But most inter­est­ing­ly of all, a pair of Alexa-enhanced com­mon house­hold items; nei­ther has Alexa embed­ded, but each con­nects to an Echo device by Blue­tooth and gains some spe­cial pow­ers through that con­nec­tion.

The first, a stan­dard rotary wall clock with a ring of LEDs around the face that shows any timers set with Alexa (timers are one of the most pop­u­lar uses any assis­tant). The sec­ond, a microwave oven that’s not smart by itself, but has a but­ton that acti­vates the con­nect­ed Echo and switch­es its con­text to that of the microwave, work­ing as a proxy voice inter­face with­out requir­ing lin­guis­tic gym­nas­tics (e.g. “Alexa, tell my microwave to cook on full pow­er for ten min­utes” becomes sim­ply “full pow­er for ten min­utes”).

Could this be enabled through an Alexa skill? Of course. But, putting Alexa inside and giv­ing it a but­ton gives Alexa per­ma­nence.

What is the Deal with the Alexa Pow­ered Microwave? It’s a Mes­sage to Appli­ance Mak­ers.

With these, Ama­zon is show­ing how a house­hold pow­ered by Alexa can be more use­ful. A big step to mak­ing this hap­pen came with the announce­ment of Alexa Con­nect Kit, a small chipset that device man­u­fac­tur­ers can put into their own prod­ucts to make them Alexa-enhanced too. Ama­zon, who don’t have their own phone or com­put­er oper­at­ing sys­tem, are cre­at­ing one for your home instead.

Even­tu­al­ly, Alexa will be com­mon­place enough that you’ll find your­self buy­ing some­thing with­out real­iz­ing it’s even there.

Every­thing is an Alexa Device Now

While Amazon’s ambi­tion is to make Alexa the meta-OS for your home, they’re not alone in that. All the oth­er com­pa­nies I list­ed in the open­ing para­graph want to do the same. Even if some assis­tants (Assis­tant, Bix­by, Siri, and Xiao Ai) start­ed in your phone OS, some (Alo­ha and Clo­va) in a mes­sag­ing app, and some (Cor­tana) in your com­put­er, (almost) all of them have a smart speak­er. But none of them thinks that’s suf­fi­cient.

The end goal isn’t a smart speak­er in every home, it’s an assis­tant in every thing. And every com­pa­ny wants your assis­tant to be theirs.

How a Google Maps Update Lead to the Promotion of Fringe Views

Google Maps got a small update on Thurs­day. A zoomed-out view now shows a globe instead of the old, less accu­rate, Mer­ca­tor pro­jec­tion. They announced it in a tweet:

A few tech pub­li­ca­tions noticed, and wrote arti­cles about it, treat­ing it as the use­ful but ulti­mate­ly rel­a­tive­ly unim­por­tant fea­ture that it is. Mashable’s Zoom­ing out on Google Maps now shows you a globe is a typ­i­cal exam­ple.

Some peo­ple on Twit­ter found humour in the idea, mak­ing quips about this update offend­ing flat Earth believ­ers, a tiny group of kooks who believe (or pre­tend to believe, I don’t know) that Earth is flat and grav­i­ty doesn’t exist. It’s a belief that’s eas­i­ly refut­ed and falls apart very quick­ly.

This gave ad-fund­ed pub­lish­ers their oppor­tu­ni­ty to get some atten­tion mon­ey: a sim­ple prod­uct update isn’t a sto­ry, but a man­u­fac­tured con­tro­ver­sy is. So pub­lish­ers like Metro wad­ed in with sto­ries like Google Maps has made a big change that’s going to anger Flat Earth­ers. The sto­ry may have its tongue slight­ly in its cheek, but it reprints the views of the flat Earth­ers at length.

Text from the Metro article explaining flat-Earth views
Metro help­ful­ly evan­ge­lise the views of flat-Earth­ers

In their sto­ry Sor­ry flat-Earth­ers, Google Maps now zooms out to a globe CNET even emailed a mem­ber of the Flat Earth Soci­ety for com­ment. New Zealand’s New­sHub went fur­ther by choos­ing the head­line Google seems to wade into flat Earth con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry debate when, of course, there is no debate.

The result is that a man­u­fac­tured con­tro­ver­sy about a minor prod­uct update has giv­en false equiv­a­len­cy to the fringe views of a small band of crack­pots so every­one can get a few pen­nies in adver­tis­ing rev­enue. This is the atten­tion econ­o­my in action, and it’s rot­ten.

On Time Better Spent and the Advertising Industry

I pub­lish an occa­sion­al newslet­ter called The Thought­ful Net, a curat­ed col­lec­tion of good writ­ing about tech­nol­o­gy and its effect on cul­ture (among oth­er things). So when I start­ed read­ing The Death of Don Drap­er, an arti­cle by Ian Leslie on the impact of algo­rithms on the adver­tis­ing indus­try, I was all set to include it—for pas­sages like this:

The ad indus­try, run by peo­ple who pride them­selves on cre­ativ­i­ty, is being dis­placed by the ad busi­ness, which prides itself on effi­cien­cy. Clients are spend­ing less on the kind of enter­tain­ing, seduc­tive, fame-gen­er­at­ing cam­paigns in which ad agen­cies spe­cialise, and more on the ads that flash and wink on your smart­phone screen.

I read through it excit­ed­ly until almost the end, when—sadly—I came across the inclu­sion of one of my least favourite tropes:

We stoop over our phones when we should be doing almost any­thing else.

This idea that time spent ‘stooped’ (I can’t be the only one infer­ring that as a neg­a­tive word, can I?) over our phones is time bet­ter spent else­where is snooty and judge­men­tal. I’ve writ­ten before about peo­ple ‘star­ing at their screens’, and what a non­sense phrase that is, and ‘time bet­ter spent’ is equal­ly grat­ing to me.

Peo­ple use their phones for all sorts of things. A lot, if not most of that, is extreme­ly impor­tant, if not vital, to the per­son doing it. I thought Maya Indi­ra Ganesh put this very well in On Time Well Spent and Ethics:

The dig­i­tal ecosys­tem gen­er­al­ly, and some social media plat­forms, host both pub­lic and inti­mate economies of care and work that make get­ting off near impos­si­ble. Migrants main­tain fam­i­ly rela­tion­ships across dis­tance; entre­pre­neurs set up and man­age busi­ness­es; mil­lions are employed by dig­i­tal apps and plat­forms; activists ampli­fy their caus­es; mar­gin­al­ized peo­ple find com­mu­ni­ty. Not spend­ing time on these plat­forms is not a choice for many peo­ple.

I’d sug­gest that if the adver­tis­ing indus­try doesn’t under­stand this, it’s per­haps under­stand­able that the adver­tis­ing indus­try is dimin­ish­ing.

I got a bit more sad when I read a lit­tle fur­ther and found this:

A com­pre­hen­sive US study, spon­sored by the Nation­al Insti­tute of Men­tal Health, iden­ti­fied a strong asso­ci­a­tion between social media use and depres­sion.

Leslie doesn’t link to his sources, unfor­tu­nate­ly, but I’m fair­ly sure he’s talk­ing about the work of Jean Twenge (Have Smart­phones Destroyed a Gen­er­a­tion?) whose work has been, if not debunked, then heav­i­ly crit­i­cised for lazi­ness, cor­re­la­tion, and cher­ry-pick­ing (No, Smart­phones are Not Destroy­ing a Gen­er­a­tion and Yes, Smart­phones Are Destroy­ing a Gen­er­a­tion, But Not of Kids, amongst oth­ers).

Ian Leslie is a writer who also works as a strate­gist in the adver­tis­ing indus­try.

This doesn’t dis­count him from hold­ing an opin­ion, but it does speak of a cer­tain bias. It’s a shame that as some­one who works in the adver­tis­ing indus­try, he doesn’t think a lit­tle more high­ly of peo­ple, and of their being more than pow­er­less zom­bies.

Any­way, I rec­om­mend you read the arti­cle to make up your own mind, even if I can’t rec­om­mend it as the great piece it promised to be.

The Man on the Bus and the Android Duplicate Apps Problem

On my bus home tonight a man approached many of the pas­sen­gers and asked them if they knew how to use What­sApp. It seemed to me that he had learn­ing dif­fi­cul­ties, and I asked if I could help. He passed me his phone, and I saw that he was try­ing to install What­sApp, so I opened the Play Store, found it, and clicked the but­ton to install it. But it wouldn’t install; the process start­ed, then stopped, with­out expla­na­tion.

I jumped into the set­tings, and worked out that there wasn’t enough stor­age space on the phone. It was a mid-range Sam­sung device, with 8GB of stor­age, but it came pre­in­stalled with two of every­thing: browsers, office suites (Google and Microsoft), email clients, pho­to man­age­ment… every­thing. And none of it could be unin­stalled.

This is a con­se­quence of Google’s con­di­tions for get­ting the best from Android: if you want to use Google Play Services—which now brings many core fea­tures of Android that are no longer includ­ed in the Android Open Source Project—you have to install Google’s core apps. And as Sam­sung make no mon­ey from Google’s core apps, they also install their own alter­na­tives and pre­sum­ably take pay­ment from com­pa­nies like Microsoft to also pre­in­stall their soft­ware.

What this meant was that, after the core sys­tem files and all the pre­in­stalled apps, the phone was left with about 1GB of free stor­age. And pret­ty much all of that was tak­en by Face­book and Mes­sen­ger.

In the end, I delet­ed a load of data from Google Maps, which cleared up just enough to install What­sApp (but may cause him some future prob­lems, for all I know). I only hope he doesn’t want to take any pic­tures or down­load music, because there’s lit­er­al­ly no stor­age avail­able to do that.

What a sad, sil­ly, user-hos­tile sit­u­a­tion. Com­pet­ing busi­ness mod­els end up screw­ing the per­son that owns the phone, and many people—like Muham­mad, the man on the bus—are left with no idea why, or how to fix it.

It was a stark reminder to me of how much is tak­en for grant­ed when the needs of busi­ness are put above the needs of peo­ple.