Why I won't be using digital assistants such as Cortana anytime soon

Martin Brinkmann
Dec 6, 2014

Apple users have Siri, Android users Google Now and Microsoft customers get Cortana with the release of Windows 10.

These voice-activated digital assistants work all in the same way. You activate them either with an activation phrase or by performing some form of action. Once activated, they accept voice input, interpret it and produce an output for you.

Siri, where is the next Mc Donalds, Ok Google, give me a weather report for today, Cortana, who won the Superbowl in 2013.

All of these questions and many more can be asked and the digital assistants will produce an answer that is often spot on.

The relatively new feature has its advantages. You can look something up without using your hands and it works considerably well for questions that have only one valid answer.

This means that questions such as "what is the best football team in the world", "should I wear black or blue to work today" or "is Assassins Creed Unity a good game" won't produce valid answers for some.

We are far away from communicating with AI that is as capable as the droids in Star Wars or other Science Fiction movies.

While I do believe that this can become a great thing in the distant future, it is more of a gimmick right now in my opinion.

2014-12-06 08.24.01

Here are reasons why I won't be using digital assistants anytime soon:

  1. The assistants are limited right now and while they provide answers for basic questions they understand, there is a lot that they can't do for you just now or don't understand.
  2. There is no way to train them yourself. What I mean by that is to make them learn things that are outside their scope. You cannot program the assistant on your own.
  3. The need to speak to the device works if you are alone or in a small group, but it is far from ideal if you are in a crowded place. I'm not only talking about speech recognition but also disturbing others by speaking to your device in public.
  4. Your commands are processed remotely which means that whatever you or anyone near you says at the time is transferred to a remote server for analysis.

All are valid in my opinion. As far as 1) is concerned: I cannot think of a single situation in my life where a voice activated assistant would be useful. I'm not driving cars which is the only situation that I can think of where this may come in handy if you need information right at that point in time.

I'm not saying that they cannot be useful in situations for some people but for me it seems to be mostly hype at this point in time.

Now you: Are you using a digital assistant? If so for what?

Why I won't be using digital assistants such as Cortana anytime soon
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Why I won't be using digital assistants such as Cortana anytime soon
Several reasons why I won't be using digital voice-activated assistants anytime soon.

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  1. ChromeShine said on December 9, 2014 at 7:35 pm

    This is the 21st century and time to start embracing new tech which works. The voice assistants work ( not to perfection, but work ) and are the future. I use it for the phone and at home on the iPad to set notifications, do some tasks, quick find answers to questions. Google Now is perhaps the best, with Siri having moments of glory, and Indigo a charming voice assistant which works on all mobile systems, pretty darn good. No experience with Cortana.

  2. lainiwaku said on December 9, 2014 at 6:30 am

    sometime it can be usefull, like yesterday, i remember i had something to remind me tomorox, and i have said said, “add alarm at 6:30 pm to do something”
    then i have go to sleep

  3. Peter CM said on December 8, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Speaking (with affectionate humor) as someone whose dad is in his late 80s and takes forever to find a search app on his iPhone and then type in a query, I find Siri invaluable — not just for my dad, but for me. It beats being stuck watching the paint dry and the bark peel and the glaciers melt while Pops fat-fingers his way to the wrong answer.

  4. Bobby Phoenix said on December 8, 2014 at 2:50 pm

    I use Google Now so much I don’t know what I’d do without it. From weather, to sports scores, to note taking, to reminders, starting navigation to places, to just trying to find basic info on things for fun like “Show me pics of the worlds largest spider”. It’s super useful for me. I just tell it what I want, and boom, I get it. It’s been 100% reliable for me. I recently got a Windows Phone, and Cortana seems pretty good too. I haven’t learned all the tricks yet, but it seems just as useful. I already rely on it for weather and scores constantly.

  5. tom said on December 8, 2014 at 6:36 am

    I like the Siri feature “name that song” – quite often I hear something on the radio and want to know the title or composer – so far Siri has been quite helpful.

  6. InterestedBystander said on December 7, 2014 at 3:57 am

    I like talking to people. Talking to devices, not so much.

    Where I work we all carry company-issued cell phones. Often, someone will have the cell in a pocket and the “voice activation” key will get pressed. The phone intones, “Say a command!” The person usually emits a swear word, or perhaps several grammatically linked swear words, and begins punching keys to turn the voice activation feature off again.

    I really, really dislike “machine intelligence” because it’s not intelligent. Today a salesperson told me, “I’m sorry — I was having a moment of introspection. Do you ever have those moments?” Now, that’s interesting. Siri and Cortana aren’t interesting. They reduce the potentiality of very deep, very meaningful vocal communication to flat button-pushing squawks.

    Yes, I can see ways Siri and Cortana might be useful in certain situations. But no thanks.

  7. Gonzo said on December 7, 2014 at 12:53 am

    I see from the responses that it makes a nice alarm clock and calendar. Is an internet connection really needed for this level of functionality?

    “What’s the weather like”, “where’s McDonalds” and “who won the game” are not something I have ever needed an immediate response for. I’m hungry, food on corner. It’s November, take jacket. Game results, ask guy at corner food place.

    Things that I do need an immediate response for like “function pointer in C#” are already at my finger tips (having fun with the new Visual Studio Community 2013 anyone?).

    I’d like to see a simpler less server-side dependent mobile OS emerge. Locally stored maps and points of insterest, straight forward BT/ WiFi transfer of what I want to where I want. More than half the functionality of Siri could be accomplished without being in constant contact with their servers. It’s possible to deliver a quality product with less reliance on the internet but the zombies don’t mind being upskirted and overpaying for data plans, so I can see why no one has attempted it.

  8. Scott Yates said on December 7, 2014 at 12:35 am

    There is a killer feature of Google now that I use OFTEN.

    It is called:
    Note to self

    Just activate Google now, and say “note to self” then pause and say your note.

    It will then send that text note to your email address along with the original audio version with no further interaction.

    This works well for me, and helps me do or remember to look into things that I otherwise might have forgotten about.

  9. Karl Gephart said on December 6, 2014 at 8:07 pm

    I know what you mean about not driving cars, Martin! I’ve been cursed for over 30 years with cars that overheat (seriously, EVERY car I’ve EVER owned)! I think the universe is trying to tell me something about walking! LOL!

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on December 6, 2014 at 8:16 pm

      I walk everywhere except for rare occasions where I have to be somewhere that is farther away than a couple of kilometers. Yes, it sucks at times. Hauled a heavy package to the post office the other day which was good awful even though it was just a couple of hundred meters away. Then again, I try to convince myself that this is as good as working out, so win-win ;)

      1. Ken Saunders said on December 6, 2014 at 11:19 pm

        This technology will be very beneficial to persons with disabilities mostly because the cost will be far lower than what some have to pay for current voice activated systems, etc, but not at this early stage (like you mentioned).

        I don’t drive due to my eyesight and it isn’t a major deal.
        You get to see and discover more things on foot anyway.
        For hauling heavy packages and such, you should do what I do.
        It’s a form of the old carrot on a stick thing.

        1) Place the item to be hauled on a skateboard.
        2) Gather up as many stray cats as you can (they need a home and a job, you’re helping them).
        3) Attach leashes to them and tie the leashes to the skateboard.
        4) Put a live mouse on a string > tie the string to the end of a pole.
        Just lower the mouse in front of the cats to have them move forward, move it to the left/right to steer, raise it when you want them to stop.
        Backing up is a bitch so don’t try it.
        For moving very heavy items like furniture, use racoons instead of cats. They’re quite powerful.
        You want to stay away from using dogs, they require more food and care and the soles on your shoes will stay clean.

  10. Oxa said on December 6, 2014 at 6:25 pm

    Ooooh! The privacy implications of #4 are enormous.

    1. ilev said on December 6, 2014 at 6:46 pm

      And so does every search engine, Facebook…..

  11. Mike Harris said on December 6, 2014 at 5:54 pm

    Respectfully, I think this is black-and-white thinking and thus very flawed. “It is not all the way there, so it’s not of use now.” I recently went from Samsung to iOS and I find Siri extremely useful, especially for getting reminders onto my schedule. Use what it can offer you and manually do what it can’t.

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on December 6, 2014 at 6:13 pm

      Well if you can name one feature that I find useful I might move to the gray-area camp but so far I have not found any. I have no need for a schedule, I don’t drive, I don’t need directions, I have no need to look up information while on the go, I don’t need to switch to different media while on the go, I don’t need a weather report, I’m not interested in the latest sports results.. Anything that I missed?

      1. Mike Harris said on December 6, 2014 at 6:16 pm

        Well, I suppose there’s a flaw in MY thinking … I interpreted your statement as a commentary on why they are not useful at all, when in fact you were saying why it was not specifically useful to you. There’s a majority of the population which finds use in a schedule, who finds it useful to look up information while on the go, and so on.

      2. Martin Brinkmann said on December 6, 2014 at 7:52 pm

        I understand that they have uses for others, like the aforementioned “no hands free” situation but I have yet to find a compelling reason to use them.

  12. Andysnat said on December 6, 2014 at 5:36 pm

    I have a digital radio which could act as an alarm clock, if I could figure out the controls. (I’m nearly 60 years old.)

    I ask Siri to set an alarm for eight in the morning, and it is done. Very expensive alarm clock though.

  13. anon said on December 6, 2014 at 4:05 pm

    brandall’s utter voice command beta app on Android

    quite good and no internet required

  14. kalmly said on December 6, 2014 at 3:46 pm

    Kind of like those horrible phone calls where you are told, “Say something like, I want to pay my bill, or I want to know my account balance.” When you answer the voice says: “I’m sorry . . .” Infuriating! No thank you.

    On the other hand, in years to come, I may prefer the companionship of Cortana or Siri to some of the people I’ve encountered lately.

    1. Martin Brinkmann said on December 6, 2014 at 5:14 pm

      I always say nothing and get rerouted to an agent right away (or press # or whatever you can press to bypass this silliness)

      1. Jeff said on December 6, 2014 at 9:32 pm

        Also, for the U.S., you can use GetHuman.com, it tells you the fastest way to get to a real person for most businesses.

  15. Jay said on December 6, 2014 at 3:41 pm

    2) it is easier to train yourself. just like learning a new UI, you learn how to get certain things done quickly in your own way in certain situations.

    1) i dont think the point is to do anything complex. the point is for people to be able to do simple things faster. meaning “ok google now, remind me to call mom tomorrow for her birthday” or “ok google now, what time does interstellar play?” or “ok google now, where is the nearest walgreens?” or “ok google now, wake me up at 5:30 am tomorrow” or “ok google now, play me some taylor swift.” these types of questions/commands happen way more quickly than having to unlock your phone, find the app, and type in the input. it is even faster for simple text or email messages. especially when things can be done completely hands free, “ok google now, find my phone” is helpful. and if my hands are dirty i can send/reply to messages, or ask simple questions (like conversions) without touching the phone. “ok google now, text Wife, message, can you pick up a bottle of wine on your way home?”

    3/4) there are still plenty situations where it works and works well. you arent always in a crowded area

    bottom line is that, just because personal assistants cant do everything every time, doesnt mean that you shouldnt use it at all. then again, i am more of an early adopter and i enjoy trying to figure out how i can get new things to work to my advantage. i dont use personal assistants all the time, but i do more than i expected, and i think for certain things, it is much faster to just talk to the phone and tell it what to do.

  16. Tom Hawack said on December 6, 2014 at 2:55 pm

    If a system cannot learn then it is not qualified to fulfill a necessary condition — though not sufficient — of AI. This is how I understand intelligence, artificial or not.

    Concerning these voice recognition tools, I guess the most advanced of them are yet to be proposed to a vast audience. At this time we are still in the gadget era, even if this term is a step towards smarter tomorrows…

  17. Zsolt Pinter said on December 6, 2014 at 12:43 pm

    I am using Google Now combined with Tasker and AutoVoice, so I can teach it and I can program it for whatever. For example:
    “OK Google, turn on office lamp” works in my case :)
    This is the true power of Android!

  18. David said on December 6, 2014 at 11:26 am

    Before Cortanna I could use voice control while driving. Now the phone needs the internet, which is never available when you need it between towns.

  19. Dwight Stegall said on December 6, 2014 at 10:21 am

    I plan on trying Cortana on my desktop when it comes out. The Gizmodo demo I saw yesterday made it look very helpful. But there is no one else in my apartment to interfere with it.

  20. DJ said on December 6, 2014 at 10:04 am

    Same here, I don’t use it. The whole thing is still just at the “proof of concept” stage, as far as I’m concerned. Also, the primary reason why I don’t want to use it for now is your #4 — it needs to be online and it transmits (and stores) your voice to a remote server. So, not for me, until it becomes self-contained on my device (or at least in some box at my home, to which all my other devices would connect), and only connecting to the outside when actually seeking something “out there”. This also applies to all further “innovations” in the areas of smart-home and health-apps.

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