Digital Assistants: Talk Techy to me

That special someone resting in your pocket is no simple software; she’s much, much more.#GNTECH presents a tale of loyalty, companionship and algorithms in a smartphone-run world

Digital Assistants: Talk Techy to me

She claims to be your “truly personal” digital assistant, there by your side come rain or shine. Ask her what you should do tonight, and she’s ready with a list of nearby events. Propose that she go on a date with you and her prompt reply is, “Okay, but we will need a plan. I’ll work on being more human, you work on being more digital.” And if you’re puzzling over how you can become more digital, you can always check with her famous father — who she reveals “technically speaking, to be Bill Gates”.

Her name is Cortana and, not so technically speaking, she is Microsoft’s daughter — a virtual digital assistant made of bytes and algorithms. Lovingly named after a character from the Halo game series, she recently moved from her cosy home on Windows devices to a new one on Android phones.

And her next destination could be the popular Android spin-off, Cyanogen OS. Kirt McMaster, CEO of Cyanogen, has announced the company is working closely with Microsoft to make Cortana an integral part of the OS.

But Cortana will have to fight it out for your love and attention — she has an older, well-entrenched rival in Google Now. A virtual catfight perhaps?

Throw in Samsung devices — where S Voice also wants to have a word with you — and it might turn into a three-way tussle. Elsewhere, Amazon, too, has jumped into the ring with Alexa, which apparently learns from you and adapts to your preferences.

And finally, if Cortana harbours dreams of becoming ubiquitous, she will have to steal the limelight from her superstar peer — Apple’s Siri.

In fact, Cortana complains that, while she wants to reach out to Siri, all she has is an ancient iPhone 3G.

She further adds that Apple’s upcoming doughnut-shaped California headquarters “looks kind of like Halo — I’m into it”.

But no matter what digital assistant you choose, you’re in for an engaging interaction. Over the years, they have grown from rudimentary programs that could only handle basic chores — like calls or fetching weather info — into complex personalities loaded with smart, witty and often snarky repartees.

For the lonely hearts club, that could mean having a meaningful conversation with the phone — for hours on end. Interestingly, even if you repeat questions, chances are the responses will be different each time. Ask Siri, “How much wood would a woodchuck chuck if a woodchuck could chuck wood?” and she replies with, “42 cords of wood, to be exact. Everyone knows that.” Nag her again with the same question and she snaps back with, “Don’t you have anything better to do?” There is also enough variety to go around — ask Cortana the meaning of life, and she explains, “We all shine on my friend”, while Google Now narrates from a Wikipedia entry, and Siri comes up with “42” — an answer from Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. Oh, and if you command Cortana to sing a song, she will do just that — a random tune every time. While her singing talents won’t win any Grammy awards, it will certainly get you chuckling.

But does the very idea of long chats with a disembodied voice coming out of your phone sound bizarre? A fad best left to the millennials? Well, Transparency Market Research, in a September 2015 report, observes that “intelligent virtual assistants are the new breeds of mobility solutions and business communication”, and predicts the global market for them will reach $5.1 billion (Dh18.7 billion) by 2022, up from $579.7 million last year. Meanwhile, research firm Gartner forecasts digital assistants will become a “killer application” by the end of next year.

In Top Predictions for IT Organisations and Users for 2015 and Beyond, it notes that by the end of this year, mobile digital assistants will also be handling mundane processes such as filling out forms; and by late 2016, more than $2 billion in online shopping will be done exclusively by them — for example, fixed grocery replenishment. “More complex purchase decisions and chained events, such as scheduling a highly rated, date-type movie along with dinner will be easily achievable,” adds the report.

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Digital assistants and virtual companions

Cortana and co are not the only talkative assistants you can hook up with. Here is our pick of virtual companions. Some mix productivity with fun — while others just destroy your productivity.

Skyvi
Its developers claim they are working hard to make Skyvi better than Siri. Apart from doing the usual chores of a digital assistant, she can also make witty remarks and even tells jokes.

Indigo
This one is said to add fun to your daily tasks and activities. “Just talk to her as if you’re talking to a human, Indigo will understand. She might even give her personal opinion… And yes, she tells jokes too.

Speaktoit Assistant
It claims that it cares. And offers a “proactive helping hand when it thinks you might need it — your best interests are its top priority.” You can even play games — Just say “Let’s play” and choose from Rock, Paper, Scissors or Magic 8-Ball.

Voice Assistants 3D
Why settle for one, when you can go for an entire family of virtual assistants? Here, each of them has their own character and sense of humour. You get to chat with “courteous” Mike and three “charming” girls who are “smart and quick-witted, and they will willingly obey to your orders, making your everyday life more comfortable. Or you can just chat with them, and they will cheer you up”. All this in 3D as well!

Pocket Assistant
She is blonde and she is in your pocket. Ergo, meet Pocket Blonde, who is “an aide, a voice assistant and simply a charming girl in your phone”. As it turns out, her real name is Brainy, and she’s eager to get acquainted with you. What’s more, this “clever blonde will be your unfailing friend, excellent interlocutor, and an indispensable virtual assistant”, says her makers.

Back Talk 2
Ever felt like talking to an alien? Well, Back Talk 2 offers a weird-looking, blue-coloured character with whom you can hold a “full conversation” that is filled with “hilarious animations, hundreds of sound effects, hundreds of jokes, trivia, and advanced effects”.