Skip to main content

We’re still not getting voice assistants right

We’re still not getting voice assistants right


We should be thinking bigger

Share this story

Google Home Mini
Photo by Smith Collection/Gado/Getty Images

The BBC is launching its own voice assistant, appropriately called ‘Beeb’ (though the efficacy of that wake word is completely suspect in a world where people might talk about Justin Bieber, just saying). Upon hearing this news, you might be tempted to think, “Ugh, why? This isn’t necessary.” I wouldn’t jump to that conclusion.

The Beeb assistant might be a boondoggle, a waste of British taxpayer money, and a classic example of the BBC making a tech thing without a super clear reason or need just because it can. In fact, I would put even money on it being all three of those things, but I’m still rooting for it anyway.

I’m rooting for Beeb because we still are screwing up this whole ambient computing, digital assistant thing. Thanks to the popularity of Alexa and the Google Assistant, we’ve come to believe that there’s some kind of winner-take-most (or all) platform war happening along the lines of Windows vs Mac or Android vs iPhone. If the future of computing is ambient, we need to do a better job of thinking more broadly about what that ambient ecosystem could look like.

Think about the conventional wisdom about voice assistants for a moment. We think of each platform as direct competitors to create a larger ecosystem while a smattering of other competitors (Siri, Cortana) struggle to make sure it doesn’t turn into a two-horse race. In a remarkable twist, Google is the one creating a more limiting, curated experience while Alexa is open to anyone and everyone. All the while each is making the internet equivalent of a cable bundle: giving you content that’s often sourced from partnership deals.

Throwing the Beeb assistant into that mix is like throwing a puppy into an MMA cage match. Everybody loves that puppy and the big, muscle-bound fighters will probably do their best not to hurt it, but their priority is kicking the other person’s ass and so there’s a good chance our little doggy’s gonna get smooshed.

Let a thousand Beebs bloom

These are bad metaphors, but that’s the point. Judging Beeb on the same scale as Alexa or Siri is just unfair. There’s no inherent reason that Alexa vs. Google vs. Siri vs. whatever needs to be a winner-take-all cage match fight. If voice is going to be an important part of how we interact with computers, then I don’t want any of those companies to have a monopoly on it.

I can think of a ton of reasons that I’d want a news-focused, accent-friendly voice interface to exist. I am an NPR listener here in the US and love getting access to it on smart speakers, but the Google Assistant and Alexa are pretty dumb about finding NPR stories about a specific topic I might care about. Imagine if the BBC or NPR could make a voice interface for their respective content that worked as well as, say, a web page.

I think that it would be pretty great to have a variety of different voice assistants available on a variety of different devices, all specialized for a variety of things. But somehow the idea that we could build a computing ecosystem based on voice that’s somehow equivalent to the openness of the web and web browsers is nearly unimaginable. The giant tech companies run the world, so we’re just waiting for them to run the next stage of computing.

Now I understand that every single tech giant can’t build a good voice assistant without getting its hand caught in the privacy cookie jar. Suggesting that we should have a ton of different voice assistants right after we all discovered everybody was letting contractors listen to our voices is awfully naive. But maybe if voice assistants didn’t need to be good at everything, they wouldn’t need to collect that much data nor require human review of our utterances.

I could imagine a world where there were a bunch of different voice assistants, each specialized in their specific tasks and willing to hand off questions to each other as appropriate. That’s not all that far from what the partnership between Alexa and Cortana could become.

If these assistants had smaller remits, they might be easier to build. Making an assistant that has to do everything seems impossible, but making an assistant that knows how to interact with just the BBC or your microwave, car, or email app seems much more manageable. And we might also more quickly land on some common conventions, vocabularies, and grammars for speaking to them.

I could imagine other worlds too, ones where AI-enhanced voice interactions are commonplace and not run through algorithms controlled by Amazon or Apple or Google. I can imagine those worlds, but it seems like precious few people are trying to build them. So even though I doubt that the BBC is going to be successful with Beeb, I am happy that there are people trying to imagine with me.

Here are some other big tech stories

Microsoft announces Surface event on October 2nd in New York City 

Tom Warren predicts we’ll see a dual-screen device at this event, and I am obviously very excited to see how Microsoft tackles that. But to tell the truth, what I will probably end up buying is a new Surface Pro (preferably with LTE, possibly with an ARM processor?). If you think about it, that scenario might be exactly why this dual-screen device needs to exist: it’s a concept car that gets people like me into the showroom to buy the boring sedan. Then again, if the sedan doesn’t have USB-C, I am going to flip out.

Microsoft has been building a new dual-screen device, codenamed “Centaurus,” for more than two years, and it’s designed to be the hero device for a wave of new dual-screen tablet / laptop hybrids that we’re expecting to see throughout 2020.

Microsoft’s Your Phone service was down just days after the Galaxy Note 10 release 

With a little more clarity and focus, Microsoft could really be onto something with its Android efforts. Hell, it is maybe a third of the way toward having what it needs to release an Android-based Surface phone, which could be fascinating. But, you know, the software has to work when the stakes are high (or even medium-low, as in this case). If I were Satya Nadella, I’d laugh anybody who suggests making an Android phone out of the room until these kinds of software bugs are completely ironed out.

The timing of the outage is particularly unfortunate for Microsoft as Your Phone is a big part of the company’s new partnership with Samsung. The new Galaxy Note 10 comes with a unique version of Your Phone, dubbed “Link to PC,” built into the handset that went on sale last week.

Nintendo Switch Lite hands-on: a budget handheld with a premium feel 

Chaim Gartenberg spent some time with the Switch Lite — definitely watch the video. For $199, this thing is going to sell like hotcakes. Maybe better, to be honest. I don’t know that hotcakes are that big of a deal anymore. Anyway, don’t assume that because this can’t do all of the things a full-sized Switch can do that it won’t sell well.

GlobalFoundries sues TSMC, looks to ban US imports for Apple and Nvidia chips 

TSMC is the most important tech company you (probably) haven’t heard of. There’s no real way of knowing if this lawsuit is going anywhere. But if it does, you’re going to hear a lot more about TSMC real quick because there’s a 100 percent guarantee that the chips it makes are in the things you own.

While the legal battle is in its early stages, if courts rule in favor of GlobalFoundries, it could have a massive impact on the consumer technology business: along with Apple, Google, and Nvidia, GF also calls out companies like Asus, Broadcom, Cisco, HiSense, Lenovo, MediaTek, Motorola, OnePlus, Qualcomm, and TCL that also rely on TSMC chips for their hardware as part of the lawsuits.

Apple Puts ‘Walkie Talkie’ iPhone Project on Hold — The Information 

It is very hard to read this nice scoop by Aaron Tilley at The Information and not spend the next four hours daydreaming about the possibility (and perils) of fully mesh-networked internet that obviates the need for gigantic internet service providers. 

Apple was working with Intel on the technology that would have let people send messages from their iPhones directly to other iPhones over long-distance radio waves that bypass cellular networks, said two people familiar with the project. The technology would have functioned something like a walkie talkie for text messages, giving people the ability to communicate in areas unserved by wireless carriers.

Fairphone updates its ethical smartphone for 2019 

After all the foofaraw about modular phones a few years back (Project Ara? More like Project Wah-Wah!), I’m really happy to see the Fairphone keeping the dream alive. This is why modularity really could matter: sustainability and less impact on the environment. Plus, replaceable batteries!

Dear Jeff Bezos: the Fire Phone bombed, but you could invest in this thing (please don’t buy it tho) and give it the capital to not only offer this phone, but offer higher-quality components to draw in gear-heads like me.

Yelp now offers personalized results based on your diet and lifestyle 

Yelp will let you tell it what you like and recommend stuff in that zone. Which, sure fine okay. But maybe don’t use it? It’s not a data privacy thing. (Maybe it should be, I don’t know.) It’s a filter bubble thing. You are already self-selecting who you hear from on social media, and your choices are reinforced by algorithms. I’d suggest that Yelp, which sends you out IRL to local businesses, shouldn’t be yet another place where you limit yourself with a filter bubble. Go Forth And Try Weird Food, I say. Anyway, Dami Lee has a good story on the updates:

“This is not just about an algorithm trying to listen to what you did and make biased decisions about who you are,” Akhil Ramesh, Yelp’s head of consumer product told The Verge. “What we built through personalization is an experience that gives the control to the user.” 

Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon and X1 Yoga are getting Intel’s latest 10th Gen chips 

I’m glad to see that Intel’s new chips are hitting more laptops, and I hope a bunch of these are available for journalists to poke at during the IFA conference. But I will admit that I’m a little bummed that the X1 Yoga — my personal favorite ThinkPad — isn’t getting the “Athena” label, which purportedly guarantees nine hours of battery life. Also, these laptops are pricey!

How the composer of Deadpool and Mad Max is changing the way we score movies 

Dani Deahl profiles Tom Holkenborg for our Future of Music series. His process for making movies scores sounds intense, but honestly, anything that results in the following sentences is great in my book:

Sure, he also works with orchestras, but he’s not bound by their traditional sound. He can also make, as he describes the sounds of Deadpool, “Frankie Goes to Hollywood and Miami Vice, but then on acid.”

Belkin’s cheaper water meter can detect usage and leaks anywhere in the home 

Growing up in Minnesota, leaving your house for more than 12 hours in January was like gambling with your entire financial future. It was like rolling the dice that your furnace would continue to work so your pipes wouldn’t freeze and burst and destroy your entire house. You would never know if the gamble paid off until you got home. What I’m saying is that this gadget seems neat, and I would want one if I lived in the frozen north.