In the Star Trek movie “The voyage home”, the crew of the Enterprise go back in time and visit earth.   In this movie, there’s a famous scene where science officer Scotty tries to use a computer by picking up the mouse and talking into it.    Now admittedly this was back in 1986, but the concept of talking to a computer rather than using a mouse and keyboard seemed very futuristic and matched the vision of the future that was the Star Trek universe.

Well, step in to 2018 and that future is now here, and, is becoming something that is integrating into everyday life.

Voice recognition has been around for years but hasn’t been reliable enough for everyday use.   The complexity of understanding different accents and dialects has always been a tough problem to crack.   I can personally vouch for this – our car as had voice recognition for years and always struggled with my English accent.   However, years of research along with the advancements in processing power have come together to mean that we can now have natural language voice recognition in our cell phones (and my car now understands me)!

Apple’s “Hey Siri” and Google’s “ Hey Google” are now commonplace in the devices we carry around with us every day.   If you haven’t set it up and given it a try I’d highly recommend it.   Being able to say “Hey Siri, set a timer for 10 minutes” is great when you’re in the kitchen and can’t pick up the phone!

These “digital assistants” are gradually becoming more and more advanced – being able to help with an increasing array of queries and actions.   I’m gradually integrating automated lights in our house and can now say “Hey Siri, turn the lights on” and seemingly by magic they turn on.

There’s a new category of device designed towards deepening this integration of digital assistants in the home.   Smart Speakers like Echo from Amazon, or the Home Pod from Apple sit on your sideboard continually listening for commands.   Amazon surprised the world when it announced the “Echo” speaker back in 2014.   Alexa, their digital assistant running on the echo speaker is always ready to help out with all kinds of requests and questions you could throw at it.   And it was also surprisingly good at understanding natural language.  It was built to be scalable – allowing developers around the world to add capabilities to it by means of “Alexa Skills”.   For example, the pizza delivery company Dominos added a skill to let you order from them by talking to Alexa.   This approach has meant that Alexa has grown from launch to understand more and more, and will continue to do so over time.   Apple on the other hand have been very careful about opening up Siri to 3rd parties, preferring tighter control over what it can and can’t do.   That’s starting to change now, however it means it’s lagging behind what Alexa is capable of.   Siri however has the advantage that it works with many more languages and dialects, so it is available in many more countries than Alexa.

It’ll be interesting to watch the battle develop between these digital assistants as they strive to become more intelligent and responsive to our needs.

I’m just happy that we’re now living in the future world of Star Trek!   Until next time, live long and prosper!