/ Technology

Are voice assistants making life easier… or more frustrating?

Do voice assistants, such as Amazon Alexa and Apple’s Siri, make our lives easier, or do they add unneeded frustration? Our guest author Lady Janey investigates…

My first experience using a voice assistant was Apple’s Siri and to say it was disappointing is an understatement. Firstly it didn’t understand my accent but being developed initially for the US market perhaps we can forgive that.

However, even when it did understand what I was saying, it failed to access the information on pretty much every occasion. To be fair it was the early stages of Siri’s introduction but having used it again recently it’s still not the user-friendliest of experiences.

My next move was to Amazon’s Alexa, which appears to have become the most common voice assistant. Google is trying to catch up but it seems to still lag behind Alexa.

Amazon’s marketing of Alexa has been clever and the pricing of the hardware initially led many to make impulse purchases with the Echo Dot retailing for around £50 or less.

Connection problems

When my little black puck arrived on the doorstep, I excitedly plugged it in and watched the spinning blue light whizz round while it tried to connect to the Internet and therein lay the first problem. These voice assistant systems must have an internet connection to work.

Gone are the days when early voice control was all programmed within the hardware and the system could only understand what it had been programmed to.

Now with the advent of cloud computing and processing, the power of multi million pound servers can be utilised to process vast amounts of data and allow these devices to be more ‘intelligent’ with understanding different questions.

However being stuck in rural Gloucestershire with a dismal broadband speed, Alexa was struggling to cope.

Next steps

Eventually Alexa appeared to have gained enough connection to allow me to register and setup the device via the app on my phone, which was a very simple thing to do.

I couldn’t wait to get going and control everything in our home with the power of my voice. However it wasn’t that simple. Apparently in order for Alexa to control anything it needs a ‘skill’.

These skills are usually developed by the hardware manufacturers to integrate their control systems with Alexa. The problem is we have many different manufacturers of gadgets around our homes and all work independently unless you have a fully integrated system.

Unfortunately Alexa only recognises certain control instructions and can’t interpret what you want if you don’t give the specific commands. Additional problems arise when you want something done in a particular room even if you’re sitting in that room.

However even then there are problems, as I have to use Living Room as the name rather than Lounge, as Alexa simply won’t understand Lounge with the system we have.

Alexa assessment…

So after several weeks of using Alexa how do I feel about her?  Well the system does work provided you remember the exact commands, don’t mumble, have a clear English accent and remember which system you want to control!

For me it’s not intuitive and is often more frustrating than just pushing a button on a keypad or app. It all still feels very artificial and you know that you’re not speaking with a real person but a programmed interface, which doesn’t have the nuances, which we as humans have.

But it’s still early days so will these systems get better over time or remain clunky and frustrating to use?

Q&A

What I do like about Alexa is the ability to ask general questions where the answer can be obtained from the internet.

Provided you’re not asking her to control anything it’s much more natural to ask a general question and get an answer.

That is very useful and quicker than typing the question into Google or other search engines. However again this relies on a speedy Internet connection, which we do not have.

This is a guest post by Lady Janey. All views expressed are Lady Janey’s own and not necessarily those also shared by Which?.

Do you use a voice assistant – and do you have any gripes with them? Will they ever become a natural way to get things done?

Comments
Member

Being somewhat old fashioned, nothing I do or need to control requires voice commands except-rarely – in the car, and then it is usually better to push a button than use the voice menu to get what I want. I have a resistance to things that are over automated and take on a life of their own. Not only is there more to go wrong, but there are more ways in which the machine can do what it wants and not what you think it is doing. I am also suspicious of anything that requires an automatic and un-regulated access to the internet in order to function. It increases the chances of malware and hackers entering the system and data being stolen or manipulated. Finally, I don’t see the need for machines that function like this. It is no hardship to get up and turn something on or off, or even use the remote control. Information can be found quite quickly by opening a book or tapping a few words on the computer. The voice command speakers are a gimmick and a fun way of doing things but they are not essential for a better life, and that’s the point.

Member

Agreed Vynor, sometimes pushing a button is better- and more successful. Voice control devices can be a fun way of doing things but I could quite easily live without them as they are not essential for everyday life. Well, not yet anyway.

Member

Alexa – I am not interested in voice control. Please confirm that the message has been received and understood. Thank you.

Member

“You are asking me to shut up. Please confirm what you want me to shut up. Your garage doors are closed and the hens are inside with their hatch fastened.
“You want me to shut up?”
“I will tell my self to shut up. Shut up!”
“Your kettle is asking for more water it insists that I tell you before I shut up.”
“Did you know you can call me at any time? I’m always here”………
“Did you say something?”
“That’s all right, I’m shock proof and can be thrown anywhere.”
“Waterproof too but a bit too large to flush away like this.”

Member

Delightful, Vynor, but I fear that in the future we might be reading some real examples.

Member

The latest Apple TV has voice control – and it’s not bad. In fact, it’s easier than attempting to fathom out the route using the remote. And the Go Pro 6 camera has voice control and for that it’s indispensable. Once the camera is mounted on the gimbal system turning it on is only possible via voice command.

Member

I’m not up to speed here. What happens if we have two actors on a TV programme and one tells the other to turn the TV off? Is the device capable of recognising users’ voices and ignoring what is said on TV?

Member

The Apple system doesn’t have an ‘always on’ protocol. You have to manually activate it by holding a button down while you speak.

Member

I thought as much, but voice recognition would be far more fun.

Member

Why should I use systems that send info back to headquarters can easily be hacked and have been -turned /on /off remotely even when not in action . Can be used to snoop on you both by hackers and by both “services ” and already have been in the USA , oh but I forgot this is the UK – we are “immune ” to that –of course we are. its sure to be an amazing hit , just dont fain surprise when its popular and a convo starts on – how did they know this or that – ah I forgot again –nobody cares !

Member

I use Alexa for my morning news briefing, which gives me transport updates, weather and a BBC news update. It’s handy in the morning!

I also like asking her to play songs I like as she’s linked to my Spotify.

I am finding the pronouns I’m using for a device slightly creepy though!

Member

My approach is to turn on the radio using the remote control on the bedside table. A laptop is ready for use by my pillow.

Member

Voice assistants are fine if you want to listen to a modern song with a unique, short name and artist, but for classical music they’re next to useless. If I said ‘OK Google, play Konzerte für 2 Klarinetten und Orchester op.35 & op.91, Konzert für 2 Klarinetten und Orchester Es-dur Op.35: I. Allegro by Sabine Meyer, Joerg Faerber and the Wuerttembergisches Kammerorchester Heilbronn’ you can be fairly sure I’d get ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t understand that’ back – and not just because of my poor German accent. Still, you can say much the same for how music metadata works with classical music more generally.

These devices seem mainly useful in cases where there is a specific accessibility need that a smartphone can’t meet (or on the odd occasion where you have your hands full with something else). Personally, I find myself tempted on occasion, only to think again and wonder when I would actual get any practical use out of them!

Member

🙂 Alexa might think of a predicable response, Adam: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HlFI25AWy2Q

Member

I like to be able to ask her quick questions too Patrick like about the weather or a currency/quantity conversion but that’s about it. Sadly Spotify for us with such poor broadband speed is but a dream! #stillwaitingforfibre

Member

If Alexa isn’t going to do the ironing then I am not interested.

I had an administrative assistant in 1972 whose name was Alexa. She was fresh out of school but very capable, obliging, multi-functional and competent. Alexa used no electricity, looked smart, made good tea and coffee, did faxes and photocopying, brought the post round, and did a host of office chores.

We haven’t come far have we? . . . but look up Google Duplex: this is AI with a brain [and a disturbingly realistic voice complete with mannerisms].

Member
Lynn james says:
12 August 2018

I love alexa..so much that i got an echo in the recent prima day sale ti add to my dot. Perfect for music, timers and reminders. Btw congrats on writing for which😉😍

Member

Thanks Lynn, it’s a pleasure to be a guest author for Which? Conversation. It’s nice to hear that you love Alexa. I think if we had a better internet connection here that even I may feel a little more affection towards her! 😉

Member

I think voice assistants are just as annoying as wading through options when phoning a call centre. I prefer to do things visually on a screen. The only thing I use Siri for on my iPhone is setting countdown timers as it’s quicker than going through menus.

Member

A German customer under GDPR requested data held on him by Amazon .
He was sent 1700 voice recording by Amazon Alexa but the recordings were of a stranger and a female .
When he reported it to Amazon the recordings were deleted but he already had copies so when they denied it he was able to produce them .-
Point ? – Amazon Alexa/Echo keep all personal recordings .
Report on Reuters.

Member

I presume that Amazon’s retention of Alexa’s commands and responses is identified in the terms & conditions which no one bothers to read or in the privacy policy statement which describes how the company deals with customers’ personal data. I feel that it is right for Amazon to retain records in order to deal with any claims or complaints but where they went wrong was in supplying a different customer’s recordings. It would also be wrong if they used recordings for downstream analysis or for marketing purposes. I don’t know if there is any suggestion that this occurs.

Member

It looks as if it is coming John.
https://www.cnbc.com/2018/01/02/amazon-alexa-is-opening-up-to-more-sponsored-product-ads.html
The USA has a Alexa /Echo microwave oven –soon all your conversations in your own home will be monitored –who needs the NSA/GCHQ now ?

Member
DerekP says:
23 December 2018

I would assume that any voice recognition service will need to store voice data in order to train its algorithms and/or just in case there any disputes.

Member

So long as consumers are informed of these implications and still deliberately choose to have the gadgets, what is the point of worrying over it? Why else would one choose an Alexa-assisted microwave oven but to have some voice interaction with it? Where do people think it gets it’s guidance from? They know it ‘phones home’ for the answers. Anyway, I doubt whether the conversations people have with a microwave oven are that strategic or compromising. I have given instructions to, or asked questions of, my friends’ Echo device and had discussions within its hearing range but the master controllers who might be listening in don’t know who is actually speaking. Perhaps I should announce myself in future.

Member

Amazon were able to trace the German couple and issue an apology John and no they didn’t speak saying -hello Helga (in German ) this is Adolf from the Reich Chancellery .

Member
DerekP says:
23 December 2018

“Tea, Earl Grey, hot!”

Member

“Imzadi? Was that you?”