When I asked Alexa earlier this week who was playing in the Super Bowl, she responded, somewhat monotonously, “Super Bowl 49’s winner is New England Patriots.”
“Come on, that’s last year’s Super Bowl,” I said. “Even I can do better than that.”
At the time, I was actually alone in my living room. I was talking to the virtual companion inside Amazon’s wireless speaker, Echo, which was released last June. Known as Alexa, she has gained raves from Silicon Valley’s tech-obsessed digerati and has become one of the newest members of the virtual assistants club.
All the so-called Frightful Five tech behemoths — Apple, Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook and Alphabet’s Google — now offer virtual assistants, which handle tedious tasks in response to voice commands or keystrokes, on various devices. Apple’s Siri is the best known, having been available since 2011, but Microsoft now has Cortana, Facebook is testing one called M, and Google builds its voice assistant into its search apps.
These companies are presenting scorecards of their progress with quarterly earnings reports in the next few weeks, so what better time to hand out report cards to their artificially intelligent assistants? With that in mind, I set up tests for the assistants and graded their abilities to accomplish 16 tasks in categories that most consumers generally enjoy: music, productivity, travel and commuting, dining, entertainment and interests like sports.