Why Are Voice Assistants so Dumb?

The voice assis­tant seemed so cool and made so much sense. What happened?

If you fol­low Inter­net of Shit, you already know. This Bloomberg sto­ry about Alexa adop­tion sug­gests even the biggest play­ers in voice-enabled hard­ware are strug­gling to find their why. 

We have sev­er­al Echos in our house, all of which are used for extreme­ly banal rea­sons that are just eas­i­er than con­nect­ing dumb speak­ers by blue­tooth for the most part, or press­ing but­tons on an oven timer. Of course, they were envi­sioned as trans­for­ma­tive tech­nol­o­gy, not egg timers.

Bloomberg does­n’t go deep on this, but points to the over­all onboard­ing expe­ri­ence as being where users seem to check out, if not short­ly there­after. Some of the com­plaints are famil­iar: in an effort to get you to do more with the device, it starts ask­ing you if you’d like to try new skills, few of which have any rel­e­vance to what you’ve been doing with it.

Dieter Bohn wrote how we’re still get­ting voice assis­tants wrong for the Verge in 2019 and if you search the title of this post, you’ll find no short­age of com­men­tary. Heck, Android Author­i­ty asked their read­ers if they used them and the over­whelm­ing major­i­ty said no. To be clear, this isn’t that they strug­gle with nat­ur­al lan­guage pro­cess­ing — they absolute­ly do — it’s also that they don’t seem to con­nect to any pat­terns in usage and then devel­op intel­li­gence built around it. Isn’t this what AI and machine learn­ing is all about to the layperson?

It’s not just Alexa; it’s every voice assis­tant I’ve ever used. If you’ve found any Alexa skills or rou­tines use­ful, share them below.

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