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Editorial

Amazon Alexa & Google's Assistant are inexcusably terrible at knowing when they're called

As smart speakers continue to encroach into our lives, the cheaper ones from Google and Amazon need to get better at knowing when we do and don't want them to speak up.

HomePod

HomePod


In my home, I have more than a few "smart" speakers. Mixing ecosystems with the likes of Google Assistant, Amazon Alexa, and Apple's Siri. My Ecobee 4 and OneLink Safe and Sound both have Alexa built in, as does the Echo Dot located upstairs. My HomePod sits in the office of our open-concept lower level.

Each time I go to make a request, I have to consider which device will be taking that request and tailor the key phrase based on the assistant I want to invoke. More often than not, it is HomePod that answers my call to action —because Apple has put a lot of work into that particular aspect.

Then there is the inverse —those non-infrequent times that I say something else other than the magic speaker invocation phrase, and yet one of the speakers feel the need to chime in.

Alexa speakers are the biggest offenders, frequently activating when no keyword was uttered. It is amazingly frustrating and almost scary the things they try to do without me asking.

My First Alert Onelink Safe and Sound once tried to donate my money to a charity, but luckily no charity was set up so she instead directed me to Amazon's website. Ecobee attempted to make a phone call before also saying that it wasn't set up. Had these been configured, it would be far too easy for these things to happen without me ever intending them to.

I didn't even know that Alexa was capable of some of the tasks before she tried to carry them out.

Many of these tasks have checks and balances —like donating my money —to help stop them from completing, but that doesn't make me feel any more comfortable with them trying to do so without me explicitly asking them to in the first place.

The unwanted responses get even worse when the TV is going and countless commercials —especially around the holidays —keep repeating Alexa's key phrase and causing my speakers to answer questions or play music. This isn't strictly Amazon or Google's fault —but there needs to be better recognition to prevent this from ever happening again.

HomePod, on the other hand, has never inserted its opinion unprovoked. Since I can merely speak the phrase "Hey Siri" from across the downstairs and HomePod answers, Apple is clearly doing a much better job of monitoring and verifying those keywords before taking a request. Admittedly, how well it answers is up for debate, but that's a topic for another day.

What's the point of a smart speaker if it isn't smart enough to understand when we do and don't talk to them? I'm so close to completely disabling Alexa on my other speakers and picking up a second HomePod, even with the high price tag.

Yes, the HomePod needs quite a bit of love from Apple from a voice interpretation standpoint. Siri lacks requisite smarts for it to truly dominate the competition, and it lacks direct support for other music services without using AirPlay.

The one thing Apple did nail, however, is invoking the assistant in the first place, and knowing when it should keep quiet.