Voice Assistants Have Always Been Kind of Stupid

Published: 2022-12-22

Thinking back to 2012 (wow 10 years ago at the time of writing this), I was incredibly excited about voice assistants. At the time I had been a sales rep selling phones at RadioShack (rest in peace) and then later at Sprint (rest in peace) so I was around the newest and most powerful smartphones and exposed to all the latest useful features and stupid gimmicks that OEMs were pushing out. What an amazing time to be alive.

I think many of us can recall the novelty when we first used the likes of Siri, Amazon Alexa, Cortana, and Google Assitant. So cool! However, that novelty gradually wore off and the idea of usefulness subsided when we tried to use them in real life situations only to have them not work even after shouting frustratingly at our phones. For me, the usefulness stopped after anything beyond "Ok Google, set a timer for 10 minutes".

I remember when Amazon Alexa launched in 2014 and we got one in the office I worked. My coworkers would comment about neat and futuristic this weird cylinder with a blue ring was. At that time I wasn't as jaded as I am now about consumer technology, but to me it kind of seemed like a reverse move - that the technology would come to these ugly looking cylinder speakers and eventually make it's way to our smartphones. Some ideas that were being worked on were to create an Alexa "Skill" that would tell you how to make recipes using Nestle products. I won't get into the fact that a lot Nestle products are typically already "made" and heavily processed, it's that people don't follow recipes using audio. They follow written instructions on paper or on a screen. To this day, I still don't understand the point of standalone voice assistants. Maybe some of us would like to think we're living in the future being able to turn on a light with their voice.

With the exception of those with accessibility needs, voice assistants are now (and probably always have been) completely pointless. At best they're just very shitty ad-tech. I won't even get into the privacy and security concerns here about intentionally bugging your house with always-on microphone consumer-tech product that's eager to give you "recommendations" and harvest data. Even trying to use one of these voice assistants today, they are still just bad as they were.

As Mark Pesce puts it in his article at The Register: "voice assistants were never designed to serve user needs. The users of voice assistants aren't its customers - they're the product."

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