The new shiny-shiny right now is artificial intelligence, and how that can be implemented in the devices we use on a daily basis to help us Get Things Done. Google, for example, showed off it’s new messaging platform Allo at I/O a couple of weeks ago. Part of the gist of that platform is that you would be have a text conversation with a friend, and one of you would say, “I’d like some pizza.” In would pop Google to say “hey, here are some places that serve pizza. Would you like a reservation?” Useful, perhaps, but a little surprising considering the lack of love for Clippy.
Nonetheless, artificial assistance through bots, cards, banners, notifications, gadgets and all manner of similar preemptive technology is where the industry is headed. Of the three major tech platforms (Apple, Google, and Microsoft), Google is reputationally the furthest along in getting information in front of your face before you know you need it. Arriving at the airport? Google Now has already prepared your boarding pass in a Card. Wondering where your package is? Google Now has already told you. That’s the theory, anyway, and by all accounts, it works pretty well.
Microsoft, too, has gotten into the digital assistant game with Cortana, which comes baked into Windows 10. (It’s the circle in your task bar.)
You can also install Cortana on your iPhone or Android phone, and you can talk to it. It will respond, like Siri and Google Now. But Cortana also suggests things for you to read, and will pop toast notifications into the bottom right of your screen, as well, with calendar notices, reminders, and traffic information when you have an off-site appointment. It… has gotten better since it launched.
Apple was aware of the need to have Siri do more than tell you it’s raining and cracking stupid jokes. So “proactive” features were added to Siri to give you, for example, traffic alerts for when you need to leave for an appointment, and to bring back the left page of the home screen, giving you suggestions on who to contact, and which apps to launch. Apple’s claimed insistence on protecting user privacy, along with its notoriously cludgy cloud offerings, however, means that Apple tries to do most things on-device. This is alarming to some, such as Marco Arment, who caused a stir a couple of weeks ago with his article, “If Google’s right about AI, that’s a problem for Apple.”
Apple is Doomed
Of course, the past decade has been rife with stories about how Apple is doomed, and all that has happened is astonishing profitability. It doesn’t matter that OS X’s marketshare is lower than that of Chromebooks, and it doesn’t matter that Android devices far outnumber iOS devices–people have purchased enough Apple products to make it the most valuable company in the world right now. So, yeah, Apple’s probably not terribly worried about this latest problem.
Siri Could Be A Lot Smarter
That being said, Siri is pretty awful, and part of that is likely due to an issue Arment pointed out in a footnote:
“Privacy” isn’t a very good excuse. It’s possible to build tons of useful services and smarts by just using public data, like the web, mapping databases, business directories, etc., without any access to or involvement from the user’s private data. Even more enhanced functionality can be done with the limited set of personal data that Siri already uses, such as location and contacts. Google and others do these sorts of non-creepy or less-creepy services far better than Apple, too — not just the creepy ones.
The other day, I got a Cortana notification on my desktop telling me that to get to court in time, I needed to leave within the next 15 minutes. It even included a little map that I could click and it would show me my route. That in itself isn’t what was neat. After all, Siri tells me when I get in my car that it will take about an hour to get to work or home, since it has figured out those locations.
What was neat, however, is that Cortana was able to tell me that I needed to leave even though the only information I put in the “location” field when I added the setting to my calendar was: “56th District Court–Galveston County.” Siri, on the other hand, did not give me a notification, and has never given me leave-now notifications for calendar settings unless I enter an exact address for the location. What Cortana was able to do, and what Siri should be able to do, was figure out that the 56th District Court in Galveston County is at a specific location and give me the leave-now notification.
Admittedly, leave-now notifications are mostly useless to me. I know when I need to leave for appointments,