I remember as a kid discovering Batman for the first time and feeling fascinated with the gadgets he kept using. Bruce Wayne was rich and could afford to buy the fanciest stuff to make an awesome ‘Batcave’ overflowing with amazing inventions. And since he was rich, he could also afford to have a butler. Alfred did the tidying up by keeping and maintaining Bruce Wayne’s life while Batman focussed on kicking ass.
Wouldn’t it be wonderful if we all could have our very own Alfred? With the advent of Siri, Google Now and Cortana, we actually do. Right in our pockets. Technology brands have invested millions of dollars in research work to come out with these ‘Digital Assistants’ who talk to us like a real human. They act like our ‘Personal Assistant Apps’ and they can help set reminders, give us relevant information and answer complex questions that take up precious time.
Simply put, a digital assistant is a tech-equipped butler that resides in our smartphones which helps us accomplish simple tasks by talking to us. If this sounds magical, then allow me to quote famous sci-fi writer Arthur C Clarke, who once said
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
This is what it feels like to use Siri or Google Now. If you’re unfamiliar with digital assistants, then hang tight. You’re in for a ride!
A.I. made for humans
Our understanding of ‘Artificial Intelligence’ was based mostly on sci-fi. There were a few ‘commands’ that artificially created intelligent robots could understand and then execute them. Things like ‘Clean the room’, ‘Dial 911 on the phone’ or similar. They couldn’t understand the fact that ‘Will it rain tomorrow?’ was a question aimed at checking the weather forecast.
But Apple and Google started to dig deeper to make their own homegrown AI smarter. Much smarter. A long-press on the Home button of the iPhone 4s activated Siri, with whom you could carry out an entire conversation. It not only could understand ‘natural’ language like how we spoke, but could also talk back in a more natural and human way. Siri was revolutionary for her time but Google wasn’t taking things lying down.
Their approach differed a bit with the Google Now assistant. While Siri felt like an app in herself, the Google Now assistant was an extension of Google search. Because while Siri was able to scour the internet to look for answers to your questions, Google’s assistant merely pulled up search results for you to view. It wasn’t until much later in late 2016 that we saw a proper Google Assistant, present in the Google Pixel.
Why should you use Personal Assistant Apps?
So, that’s all well and good. But why should you use one? Well, for one, it’s cool to be able to talk to your phone and get answers back in spoken word. There’s no need to look at your phone’s screen and no need to type. It feels ‘frictionless’ – like interacting with another person.
But the smarter use of personal assistant apps is for enhancing your productivity and accomplishing common tasks without using the touch interface of your phone.
One of the easiest (and productive) thing to do with a digital assistant is to set reminders. Have to pay some bills before the 20th each month? Just talk to Siri and Google Now to remind you about those. You can even add location-based reminders like ‘Remind me to fill gas when I’m in my car’ – and as soon as as CarPlay (or Android Auto) detects your presence, you will be greeted by the reminder.
Similar location based reminders can be set for your work and home too, if you’ve set them in Google Maps (or Apple Maps) then the digital assistant is smart enough to place where you are and accordingly serve you these reminders.
Carry out common tasks
Wanna call your spouse but your hands are dirty? You can invoke your personal assistant simply by saying the hotword (‘Hey Siri’ for iPhone or ‘Ok Google’ for Android) and following it up by, “Call my wife/husband”. You can send texts, mails, set up calendar entries and a whole lot more.
Have it read out your new messages
Siri and Google Now can also be great while driving and you don’t want to use your hands to fiddle around with your phone. Whenever a new mail arrives, you can have Siri read out your message by saying “Read me my texts” or on Google Now say “Show me my last message.”
Bye bye Google search
Rather than opening the Google Search app, tapping on the digital assistant and asking it questions that would rather type seems like a no-brainer. The good part with these improved personal assistant apps is now that they understand context.
Personal assistant apps are getting closer to fully understanding the spoken language, just like a human would
For e.g., you can ask either assistant “Who is the President of the United States?”. Once you get the reply you can then ask something like “How tall is he” and the exact height for the current POTUS. You can similarly search for just about anything and everything.
Google Now has a great feature which keeps tracks of your trips, gives you updates of your favourite sports teams, checks local traffic on your daily route and a whole lot more. Simply tapping on the ‘Google’ app gives you access to this information and you can simply ask it to check things like, “Is my flight on time?”.
If you’ve received your confirmation booking mail on Gmail, you will instantly get a reply from your digital assistant. Siri hasn’t quite incorporated this but that’s mostly because of the lack of privacy this entails. The only way Google Now is able to answer your questions is by ‘reading’ all the mails you get. Apple isn’t big on that. Yet.
Start using Google Now, Siri or even Cortana
Siri works well for Apple users on the Mac as well as the iPhone, though it’s not as versatile as Google Now. However, it can entertain you by telling jokes and doesn’t breach your privacy the way Google’s assistant. No matter which of these Personal Assistant Apps you end up using, you will only enhance the way you use your smartphone.