Alexa, Siri, Cortana, Google Home, AR, AI, Machine Learning and the Special Librarian

Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram

March 28, 2018

Are we ready for this? Sometimes a new technology simmers for years and then just seems to explode into the present. There are a few things cresting now in the consumer and business markets that we need to pay attention to.

The essence of knowledge acquisition and learning is found in questions. Good questions deliver better learning and results. Improving the quality of questions is what our reference interviewing and negotiating skills are all about. So, it behooves us, as information pros, to keep our third eyes on any technologies that moves the needle in the question space. We learned this with Alta Vista, Yahoo!, and Google. And we’ll re-learn it again with Amazon’s Alexa, Apple’s Siri, Google Home and Microsoft’s Cortana.

We need to look at the convergence of technologies that are driving this space: GPS and GIS, voice recognition, machine learning, Internet of Things (IoT), Artificial Intelligence, and Augmented Reality (AR). Lordy, we are a long way from when convergence meant phones that included a camera!

Some Definitions:

  • Artificial Intelligence:
    Merriam Webster defines this as “a branch of computer science dealing with the simulation of intelligent behavior in computers; the capability of a machine to imitate intelligent human behavior”
  • Augmented Reality (AR):
    Merriam Webster defines this as “an enhanced version of reality created by the use of technology to overlay digital information on an image of something being viewed through a device (such as a smartphone camera); also: the technology used to create augmented reality”
  • Machine Learning:
    Machine learning is a field of computer science that gives computer systems the ability to “learn” (i.e. progressively improve performance on a specific task) with data, without being explicitly programmed.

There are many things that make us human. As information professionals, we need to watch, as machines approach human consciousness and ability.

It has now been more than a decade since the automatic précis of articles became common, and we’re now approaching the ability for machines to comprehend what they read. IBM’s Watson has far surpassed its goals of winning against a chess grandmaster.

Consider following these links:

Machines Just Beat Humans on a Stanford Reading Comprehension Test

Teaching Machines to Read and Comprehend

No Machines Can’t Read Better Than Humans

Of course, comprehension isn’t the last phase of human insight, innovation, creativity, and invention. That said, it is early days, and these initiatives will evolve, surely and inevitably. How far we can’t predict, except for science fiction imaginings.

Everything above focuses on reading and comprehending what’s read. However, conversations and voice—human to human—are the primary way we transmit information and adapt it. Indeed, we remember less of what we read than what we learn socially through stories. And we retain the most (certainly not better than a computer) from what we experience.

Now back to those Personal Assistants: Siri, Alexa, Cortana, Google Home, etc. These are the big sellers of the past gift-giving season, and I’m sure many of you either have one or play with them at friends’ parties. They’re fun and addictive. And they’re inexpensive, at price points from $59 to $119. Their apps are usually free.

Read more here:

AI Faceoff: Siri vs. Cortana vs. Google Assistant vs. Alexa

Voice Assistants Aren’t So Easy to Fire

Voice wars: Siri vs. Alexa vs. Google Assistant
Three voice assistants are fighting for space in your smart home—is there a clear winner?

Google Home: 12 Things You Need to Know

As always, I’ll end this post with a little advice. The basic principle is that Information Pros should be experts—even in emerging technologies. And, as always, I am a huge fan of playing in a stress-free way with new tech—especially when you can do it for free. So, here is what you can do.

Download the free apps and play with them on your smartphone—most have Android and IOS versions. How do they compare? Indeed, the separate home devices don’t use the same algorithm as the smartphone apps. Do they recognize your voice versus others? Do they remember you and your question patterns? Learn.

Buy a device or three. It should cost under $200, and you can expense it as a program for the library to offer. How about a Question Device Petting Zoo: “Getting to Know your Home Assistant as Your Home Assistant Knows You”. Whoa—then host a discussion on the implications for your enterprise as business information and behaviours are uploaded to the cloud—and potentially tied to your employee identity. Now you see the business case!

It’s no error that the biggest collectors and users of Big Data—Microsoft, Google, Amazon, and Apple—are the biggest players in this space. Keep an eye on Alibaba too.

Keep an open mind. You’re just playing and asking good questions now.

Hey Google: “When will our intranets be voice responsive?”

Siri: “What’s my meeting schedule today?”

Alexa: “Please write that report for me on ______________________. Use the research on my R:Drive.”

Cortana: “Where’s the president right now…?”


Stephen Abram

Stephen Abram

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