My Personal Assistant is Digital


I was happily experimenting with the speech mode and Personal Assistants (PA) with my devices, when my wife, much to the mirth of my children, exclaimed “Your father is still trying to make friends with his computers. After his 30 years with computers they still haven’t found each other!”

Each of the major ICT players has released intelligent Personal Assistants: Apple has a mature Siri, Google has Google Assistant, Microsoft has Cortana, Amazon has Alexa, as its cloud-based voice service, and now Samsung has Bixby.

Given the range of companies it is not easy to decide which PA to use. Choosing a personal assistant generally means that you are also picking the apps and device it supports, and vice versa. Not surprisingly, each assistant works best within its own ecosystem. The tail wags the dog. Google Assistant works best with Google apps, Chromecast, Google Home, and Google devices. Alexa gives its best performance with the Amazon tablets and Echo devices. Siri adores the Apple ecosystem, while Cortana naturally is in love with Microsoft and Windows.

I love Steven Colbert, of the Late Show, second to our Trevor Noah, of course. As Colbert was preparing for an interview with Tim Cook, he turned to his trusted Siri, the Apple Personal Assistant, and asked advice of the type of questions for Tim. Siri pounced on the opportunity and prompted Colbert to “Ask him when I’m going to get a raise”.  Siri then nailed it with “Ask Tim if I can hire an assistant. Preferably a human!”

All of this suggests that our engagement with our technology has progressed to a new interactive form using voice for our individual PAs. For our Apple devotees who want to have some fun, ask Siri “What is 0 divided by 0!” MS guys, this is so well known, but a great programmed response for Cortana. Cortana, when prompted, “Where do you come from, Cortana?” provided this response, “I come from an attractive lineage of ones and zeros. Though more from the ones side!” Cortana on Siri? “I know her but I don’t KNOW her!”

I asked Siri “Do you know Cortana?” She was not very responsive. I then followed immediately with “Do you know Alexa?” and a miffed Siri retorted “This is about you not me!”

Dragon Naturally Speaking is software to behold. I once lived at the Schiphol

Airport, for 2 whole cold days, back in 2008, marooned by heavy snow. An Indian Chartered Accountant sat next to me and we chatted briefly before he got to work. Speaking in Hindi at a rate that I could not even intercept, let alone comprehend, he had the cursor flying between links, sheets and cells. It was a joy to behold watching device and human operate, in complete sync. And people think I speak fast!

Google Assistant will accept keyboard and voice input. Forbes asserts that the accuracy of the speech recognition technology on Google Assistant has improved significantly, with a 4.9% error rate. Would you believe that this is actually better than average conversational human recognition during routine conversations? Intriguingly, Google announced 70% of voice-based Google searches are not just keywords one would type, but dialogues one would have in a conversation. This is a fundamentally important shift in users and use cases.

This is an interesting evolution in haptic technologies which is the input and output devices such as keyboard mouse and joysticks one uses to interact with a computing device.

Google’s future intentions include Google Assistant, which will incorporate Google Lens camera input which can identify objects and allow you ask questions about the objects! Google Actions is an interoperability effort that lets the Assistant interact with third-party services like Amazon’s Alexa skills. This will be deployed on phones. Google Home and Amazon’s Echo are exciting innovations which we will discuss in future. It is a no-brainer to assert that voice-activated personal assistants are the next wave in interconnection. Haptic technology has indeed gone tactic.

‘Your intelligence has to be artificial!’ shouts the wife! ‘The grass is long! Decide amongst yourselves which one of you is responsible for mowing the lawn and do it!’ And suddenly Siri, Cortana and all the Personal Assistants, as well as computing devices on my desk, go eerily quiet.


Dr Colin Thakur is a digital activist who is committed to the dream of “one person, one connected device.” He is the KZN e-Skills CoLab Director, located at the Durban University of Technology.