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June 2, 2018

5 reasons I still hate voice assistants, even as the world goes nuts for them

by John_A

Bill Roberson/Digital Trends

I have multiple devices that I can talk to, and outside of telling Siri to turn off the lights when I go to bed (because I’m a lazy, terribly person), I don’t talk to a single one of them. In fact, I’ve disabled the voice-activation function of all the ones that I can. I don’t like talking to my devices. I find it silly, and I don’t find it makes my life any easier.

But the numbers show that I’m virtually alone in my disdain for voice-activated electronics. The Alexa-enabled Fire Stick is Amazon’s best-selling device, along with the Echo Dot, FireTV 4K, and Echo Spot — all devices that want you to tell them what to do.

And people are using the devices like crazy. Alexa Skills are multiplying daily, and people are using their Echoes to order dog food and coffee instead of firing up an app or a web browser. Meanwhile, Apple is dead-set on making voice a premiere way to interact with its products, hiring hundreds of engineers and designers to make Siri smarter.

Let me back up a bit. I was an early adopter when it came to voice activation. In 2006, I adopted a Nabaztag voice-activated robotic rabbit. I loved her. I’d ask her for the news headlines, she’d read me my emails, and I’d pay attention to her telltale ears when the weather was bad.

And then Siri, Alexa, Google Assistant, PlayStation Eye, Kinect, and others came along. They all wanted me to talk to them. To tell them what to do. I learned the voice commands like a good nerd and, once I had my home dialed in to the extent that I could change the thermostat temperature, turn on the TV and even choose a channel, and dim the lights with my voice, I quit.

I quit it all.

I realized I just don’t like talking to my devices, and I don’t find that doing so is any better than using an app or website to do what I need to do.

Once I had my home dialed in to the extent that I could change the thermostat temperature, I quit.

Before I go any further, I’d like to make a couple things clear. First and foremost, I love new technology. My entire home is smart, from the thermostats, to the lights, to the TV, to the smoke detectors, to the security systems. I like connected devices. Second, I think voice commands have a time and a place, namely in cars to reduce distraction and in cases where disabilities or other impairments make it a viable way to interact with your tech.

I also believe that at some point in the future — probably sooner than later — when Siri and Alexa can parse more than simple commands, I’ll be on board. This isn’t the rant of a luddite who just doesn’t get it. This is the rant of a nerd who doesn’t need it.

With that aside, let’s dig in to why I don’t like to talk to my devices.

It’s goofy

I have a friend who loves talking to his devices. I get it — he’s as much of a nerd as I am, and telling your device to remind you to pick up some milk before heading home is a convenience that’s hard to replicate. But every time he does it, he gives me an apologetic look as if to say, “Yeah, I know what I’m doing is goofy, but I’m doing it anyway.” I can respect that. But it’s still goofy.

It’s slow

In many cases, telling your device to do something – from the moment you realize you want to change the temperature to the moment the temperature changes, for instance – is rarely faster than picking up your device to get it done. Sure, your smartphone might be across the room and you just want to set the thermostat to 72 degrees, but when was the last time your smartphone wasn’t within reach?

It’s frustrating

Let’s assume I’m wrong about the slowness thing (I’m not). Even if it is faster, at least at first, to use your voice to change the temperature or to order a product, it’s often incorrect. This undermines the convenience and speed of talking to your devices.


“Alexa, set temperature to 72 degrees.”

“Okay, I ordered ten packets of Cold Eeze. They will be delivered by UPS on Saturday.”

The old-school alternative — changing the temperature (or ordering Cold Eeze for that matter) — is seeing your choice and an exact, visual confirmation before following through with what you actually want. No muss, no fuss. It just works.

It’s incomplete

Ever notice how excited people get when Alexa or Google Assistant can do something new, like parents seeing their toddler say a real word for the first time? “Alexa can now set your DVR to record The Daily Show!”

You could do that for years just using your DVR or a remote app like Harmony. And it just works.

It’s a gimmick – a party trick.

The fact that we get excited when our digital assistant learn new tricks is evidence that they’re incomplete infants. We get so excited that they can do something as simple as take a note or recite an email that we forget how useless they really are in the big picture, and how often we’re going back to the “old” way of getting things done anyway. In other words, it’s a gimmick – a party trick. Perhaps in the future when they’re smarter we’ll find real use for them, but let’s be real: They don’t do anything we couldn’t do last year with our fingers.

It’s creepy

I spend enough of my life online to know that the concept of privacy is a moving target. All of my devices track what I do, mostly to make my experience with them more tailored to my habits, but also to make other people more money. I’ve accepted that, just as I have accepted advertising, marketing, and being a contributing part of society.

With that said, I still find the idea that devices are always waiting for me to say, “Alexa!” or “Okay Google” a bit, well, creepy. It’s likely I’ll get over it, but I’m not quite there yet. Reports of Alexa randomly sending recordings of private conversations to friends is not helping the situation.

Don’t get me wrong

Eight years ago, beloved animator and director Hayao Miyazaki of Studio Ghibli (Spirited Away, Princess Mononoke) infamously dismissed capacitive gesture interfaces as obscene, saying, “For me, there is no feeling of admiration or no excitement whatsoever. It’s disgusting. On trains, the number of those people doing that strange masturbation-like gesture is multiplying.”

Miyazaki was last seen attempting to learn to use gesture and touch interfaces as he struggles to get his next upcoming film ready for the world. In short, he was wrong, and he admits it.

Voice commands are clearly part of our future. This is not me saying that voice commands — or those who embrace them — are pointless or even obscene. I just don’t think they’re ready yet. But, hey: Thanks for beta testing them and teaching them some new tricks while the rest of us wait for prime time.

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