**Pop quiz – What was so significant about the release of the iPhone 4S back in October 2011? **Give yourself a pat on the back if you guessed that this was the first handset to successfully introduce the world to a virtual personal assistant. Like something from a sci-fi movie, Siri was a voice-activated computerised intelligence ready to lend a hand (and an ear) with the hassles of everyday life. Fast-forward just nine months, and Siri’s first challenger appeared on the scene in the form of the much acclaimed Google Now.
It may have taken over two years for Microsoft to join the party, but the recent release of Windows 8.1 heralds the arrival of Cortana, the third mobile assistant to demand your attention. Is this too late to compete with the likes of Siri and Google Now? Or will Microsoft’s iteration take the best of both systems to deliver the most accomplished voice-activated software to date? We take a look at the three leading virtual PA’s available, and the best of what they have to offer.
The best of Siri
When Siri first arrived in 2011, it was the butt of numerous jokes regarding its ability to provide companionship for lonely souls the world over. It can address you by name, it appears to have a personality, Apple even hired professional voice actors to ensure that friendly feel. UK Siri, however, features the dulcet tones of Jon Briggs, aka the voice of The Weakest Link, making it a little harder for us to Brits to fall in love with.
Through all its recent updates, personality is still very much the name of the Siri game. Ask a question and get an answer, or even caught up in a whole conversation. Ask Siri to set an alarm or play a song, and watch it willingly oblige. You can even tailor Siri’s responses by requesting a nickname, or letting it know it’s pronounced something wrong. Siri may well turn into your new best friend, but unlike real friends, it’s one you can customise to your own tastes.
The best of Google Now
Comedy character Alan Partridge once said of his long suffering PA, Lynn, “She’s not my wife – she’s my PA. Hard worker, but there’s no affection.” This sums up our relationship with with Google Now – it’s less personal, but more efficient. It won’t remember your name, it speaks much less, and it’s more likely to respond to your question with a list of web results. With Siri recently defecting to Bing as its default however, this leaves Google Now as the main voice of the world’s largest search engine.
Unlike the artificial intelligence of Siri, Google Now is more… well… intelligent. Like an attentive assistant standing behind you with a notepad and pen, Google Now remembers where you’ve been and what you’ve searched for. You’ll soon notice suggested articles, details of how far away from home you are with the best travel options to get back, and localised weather, attractions, flights, hotels, and even parking spots. Google Now aims to profile your movements, and answer your next question before you even ask. Whether you see this as invaluable assistance, or tantamount to having your very own cyber-stalker, the main thing that’s clear is that Google Now just wants to help.
The best of Cortana
Terminator, The Matrix, 2001 A Space Odyssey, if there’s one thing that sci-fi has taught us, it’s that artificially intelligent computers will rise up to threaten mankind. The same is true with Microsoft’s video game series Halo, which features a character named Cortana – an artificial intelligence who goes awry. Hopefully this isn’t prophetic of Microsoft’s new software which adopts both the name and voice actress of their iconic character to promote their own voice activated software.
Described by Microsoft as ‘socially intelligent’ Cortana looks to bridge the gap between Siri and Goggle Now.
The personal touches of addressing you by name, responding to questions in a personal manner, and the presence of voice actress Jen Taylor, all suggest that Cortana wants to be both your friend as well as your assistant. Remembering your searches in the style of Google Now, Cortana will inform you of local interests, your upcoming flight times and your distance from home to name just a few examples. Whereas Siri listens to you, and Google Now understands you, Microsoft wants to get to know you.
What does the future hold?
With voice assistance still in its early stages, the potential for the software is an interesting thought to consider. Stephen Hawking recently warned of a future in which Siri achieves world domination, but until then we might as well enjoy the convenience of hands-free web searches.
For the time being, with such a range of virtual assistants to choose from, you may be spoilt for choice. The joys of the software detailed above is in learning their full capabilities, applying their benefits to your daily life, and ensuring you get the full potential from your shiny new piece of tech.