In studies, AI platforms by Google, Apple, Microsoft, and
Amazon all show di;erent strengths. Google Assistant is the
best on wide-ranging search commands. Apple’s Siri and
Microsoft’s Cortana have other talents. Alexa does particularly
well with shopping commands.
The ultimate triumph for voice-based AI would be to carry
on a realistic, multi-minute conversation with users. Such
a feat will require huge jumps in machines’ ability to discern human speakers’ intent, even when there isn’t an obvious request. Humans can figure out that a friend who says “I
haven’t been to the gym in weeks” probably wants to talk about
stress or self-esteem. For AI software, that’s a hard leap. Sudden switches in topic—or oblique allusions—are tough, too.
Eager to strengthen ties with the next generation of AI
and speech researchers, a year ago Amazon invited engineering students at a dozen universities worldwide to build voice
bots that can sustain a 20-minute conversation. The campus
making the most progress by this November’s deadline will
win a $500,000 prize. I auditioned a half-dozen of these bots
one weekend, moving each time from simple queries to trickier open-ended statements of opinion that invited all kinds of
possible replies. We got o; to a good start when one bot asked
me, “Did you see any recent movies?” “Yes,” I replied, “we saw
Hidden Figures.” Rather than mimic newspaper reviews of
this poignant film about NASA’s early years, the social bot shot
back: “I thought Hidden Figures was very thin on the actual
mathematics of it all.” Not my take on the film, but it seemed
like a charmingly appropriate thing for an AI program to say.
Our conversation stalled out soon afterward, but at least we
had that brief, beautiful moment.
Alas, none of the other bots could come close. The most
confused one blurted out sentences such as “Do you like curb
service?” when I thought we were trying to talk about Internet
sites. I said something perhaps a little sharp about the bot’s
limitations, only to be asked: “Can you collective bargaining?”
A few days later, when I asked Amazon’s Prasad for his take on
the social bots, none of their early failings bothered him. “It’s
a super-important area,” he told me. “It’s where Alexa could go
in terms of being very smart. But this is way harder than playing games like Go or chess. With those games, even though
they have a lot of possible moves, you know what the end goal
is. With a conversation, you don’t even know what the other
person is trying to accomplish.” When Alexa is able to figure
that out, we will really be talking.
George Anders has covered Amazon for national publications
since the late 1990s. His newest book is You Can Do Anything.
Alexa’s broader success
resides in its ability to alleviate
the stresses of an overbooked
life. It’s the companion that’s
always ready to engage.