CTRL: Are Smart Assistants Finally Smart Enough?

Four years ago Google released the “Google Assistant” and began the digital assistant endeavor in earnest. Yes, by that point Siri, Cortana and Alexa had already been around for years, but, let’s be honest, these assistants were little more than cool party tricks for the first few years. 

The Google Assistant and the Google Home—which made Google’s assistant technology available to non-Android users—set the standard for just how natural interactions with digital assistants could be. As a self-proclaimed early adopter of just about any new tech, I was on the Google Assistant train from day one. 

The assistant’s uncanny ability to understand everything I said instantly and it’s unbelievably human-sounding voice blew my teenage mind. I was sure the future had arrived, and I was living in it. My infatuation with it led me to even activate Cortana on my Windows computer, and from that point on I decided I was a full-on digital assistant user. The honeymoon didn’t last long.

It took maybe a week for my amazement to morph into frustration. The parts of the Assistant that impressed me—the voice recognition and voice generation—weren’t the problem, but the sparse functionality and formulaic phrases these assistants depended on quickly chipped away at my desire to use them. My phone might have perfectly understood when I said, “add an event to my calendar,” but it’d simply reply, “Sorry, I don’t know how to help with that” unless I phrased it as, “create a new calendar event.” The lack of flexibility made assistants frustrating and unnatural to use.

And so, I disappointedly un-adopted the digital assistant and went back to doing things myself like everybody else. In the years that have passed since, I’ve rarely felt the desire to give assistants another shot. Even in the face of the rapid growth of smart home devices, I’ve remained unmoved. 

But, as fate would have it, I was gifted a Google Home Mini for Christmas, and so my journey into the digital assistant world began anew. I began the setup process thinking it’d be annoying and unresponsive. Instead, it was quick and seamless. Within 5 minutes I had my Home Mini setup and responding. Every phrase I threw at it worked perfectly, even past the obvious examples. And, when the Assistant didn’t understand me, the response was natural and detailed enough that I could understand what exactly it was struggling with.

Then, I proceeded to set up the smart light bulb I was also given. Again, my expectation was that the setup would be clunky, unpredictable, and anything but smooth. And again, my expectations were totally foiled. Within a minute I could tell my Assistant to “set the room lights to 10 percent” and watch with restored amazement as the lights dimmed. 

Since then, I’ve become more and more reliant on my Google Home. When I’m about to head out and wondering whether I need gloves or not, I’ll just ask it how the weather is. When I’m done watching Netflix on the television, I’ll just head back to my room and say “Hey Google, turn off the TV” as I’m walking, with full faith that it’ll work. My trust that my assistant will know what to do when I say something is back, in a way I’ve never felt before. In fact, I even found myself asking it when the next cruiser from Newell would be coming, before realizing how obviously ludicrous it was for me to ask that.

It’s clear to me digital assistant technology has progressed to where it’s legitimately useful and is ready to become a part of everyday life. And I don’t just mean this as an endorsement to the Google suite of products: these kinds of technologies tend to progress in unison, and I’d be just as comfortable with Siri, Cortana, or Alexa. Well, maybe not Siri. Hey Google, submit my Maroon-News article to the editors.