Alexa’s constraints make it a better assistant

“OK Google,” I said to my Pixel phone, “pause.”

I expected my music to stop playing. Instead, Google Assistant offered me the top search result: PAWS, an animal advocacy organization. This isn’t the only time Assistant has failed to catch my intent. More than once, I’ve said “never mind” after inadvertently invoking the Assistant with the wake phrase, only to be told that “Nevermind” was an album by Nirvana.

Don’t misunderstand me (even if my phone does). The versatility of Google Assistant has its perks. I love being able to set time or place based reminders. If I want to know how tall Angelina Jolie is (5’7″) or how long it will take me to get to my parents’ house (23 minutes), Assistant is ideal.

No, the problem with Assistant isn’t its lack of capabilities, but its lack of constraints. You can say anything to it, and it will respond. Even if the response is unrelated to what you need.

In contrast, Amazon’s Alexa has a large but limited vocabulary. My Echo may not know the phone number of the local CVS, but when I say “pause,” there’s no ambiguity—paws have no place in its syntax. If I say “Alexa… never mind,” it doesn’t mind. It just drops the conversation.

And, as it turns out, that’s what I want in a voice-activated assistant. I know what Alexa can do, and I know she’ll do it when I ask. When I need a search engine, I’ll talk to Google. But, for now, Alexa is my girl Friday.

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