I have five digital “personal assistants” and still can’t do anything

I have five digital “personal assistants” and still can’t do anything

I have five digital "personal assistants" and still can't do anything

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There comes a time in every adult’s life when you stop and think: I could really use a personal assistant. I know I could. The Washington Post’s budget, however, does not stretch to provide every reporter with personal assistance. But thanks to the magic of technology, I regularly have access to five digital assistants: Siri, Cortana, Alexa, Google Now, and an email scheduling assistant called Amy.


This should be a breeze for anyone trying to get organized on a New Year’s resolution. This should be fantastic. But, if I’m being perfectly frank, I’m really no closer to doing anything.

The idea of ​​an assistant is enticing but difficult to implement, said Dennis Mortensen, chief executive of, a company that makes an artificial intelligence assistant you can copy to your emails to schedule appointments. -you. According to Mortensen, the most popular assistants are really “enablers” rather than programs that help you. They give you information so you can do things, but don’t do much for you.

Not only did I find this out, but I also noticed in the process that you give up a lot of information. These things need to know your schedules, habits, favorite contacts, and more to work well. That’s about as much, in fact, as you’d give a real personal assistant – something that can make many feel uncomfortable.

Digital assistants are a relatively new technology, and not all digital assistants are created equal. There is Siri, for example. Apple’s digital assistant is generally good at understanding what you’re saying, operating your iPhone, and supporting some basic communication functions. Need to send an SMS? Siri is your daughter. (Or man, because Siri is on my phone.) Ditto for short emails, quickly finding sports scores, and setting up short dates. Microsoft’s Cortana, built into Windows 10, is similar to Siri. You can ask it for answers to basic questions, get traffic updates, and manage your schedule. Both are equally adept, if that’s the word, at telling corny jokes. Their greatest utility is in basic communication and information gathering.

Google Now also provides a similar service, but without the built-in personality. Google Now also has the advantage of being connected to the knowledge powerhouse that is Google. It gets better if you connect your own email account, but even without that level of information sharing, Google Now can show great search results and identify songs, which I think is a neat trick .

Amazon’s assistant Alexa, which is housed in its Echo speaker, is slightly off that path. She’s more like a personal assistant for your home rather than the rest of your life, able to set timers and provide you with updates. (Amazon CEO Jeffrey P. Bezos also owns The Washington Post.) However, she won’t be able to provide you with coffees or do much meaningful research. In fact, she is not mobile at all.

This limits the use cases. I find I use Alexa the most when cooking or sitting at the kitchen counter paying bills. These are the times when I want the news and sports updates she can offer. So basically Alexa is good for passive help rather than active help. (Alexa, by the way, will also tell you punny jokes.) I have to say that, in testing, constantly listening to Alexa led to the most interesting results. She sometimes hears her name when it hasn’t been said, which can be annoying.

Alexa and Siri can also be configured to work with smart home devices, paving the way for both systems to be more like the Star Trek computer we’ve been dreaming of for decades. But not quite yet.

It’s all pretty cool. But it is very rare that all this saves me at any time. When I send messages, for example, I constantly have to correct some of them. About 90% of the time, I’m better off typing my own posts or searches.

Helpers are designed to improve over time, but that means you keep training them after you set them up, which takes a lot of users. It’s partly my fault. I have technical commitment issues. I use a Mac and a PC, I have both an iPhone and a Galaxy S6, and I split my email between Microsoft for work and Google for personal business. But even if I could engage in a technological universe, I would still have to jump back and forth between assistants to get everything I wanted.

Alexa will only tell me what’s on my Google calendar, for example. So if I use Siri to set up an appointment on Apple’s calendar, it won’t happen automatically. I have done a lot to connect various accounts to derive real meaning from my interactions with these assistants. But I’m not a normal person when it comes to enthusiasm and patience with technology.

This is what makes the assistant so interesting. All it does is schedule things: you copy it to emails where you’re trying to set up meetings, and it sends reasonably cheerful emails to your other attendees to find a mutually agreeable time. . Mortensen sees her own company’s assistant, Amy Ingram (IA, get it?), as a vertical agent: she does a job well, rather than trying to be an all-in-one.

She also had her installation problems. Amy also only works with Google calendars at the moment, although broader support is expected when the product launches this year. Once Amy became operational, I got a glimpse of a more efficient future: the first time, I felt like I was delegating to another person. I sent an initial email, Amy did all the follow up and all I had to do was show up for a call. Interacting with her may have been strange for others – Mortensen even uses Amy to plan things out with his wife, although he admits it may not work for everyone – but it saved me a lot of “just to check” emails that I’m used to typing while gritting my teeth.

Mortensen thinks agents and assistants will eventually end up as apps: you pick the ones you want in a marketplace with lots of specialized assistants. So if you need help analyzing data, you’ll find an agent who can help you look for trends. If you want to make restaurant reservations, you can give your “assistant” times and locations and be sure things will be set up for you.

After managing all of my assistants for a few months, I’m inclined to agree that the most promising are the ones that can actually do something for you. At the very least, I wish I could say that these wizards save you enough time to repay you for what you do to set them up. I can’t say yet, for any of the assistants I tested. So until these are more widespread, I’m going to stick to my trusty paper diary and my own 10 fingers – or two thumbs, as the case may be.

© 2016 The Washington Post

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