Can virtual assistants help you say 'A.I. love you'?

on robots, Automation, jobs


Why not fire up a personal digital assistant on your phone to do your romantic bidding? Let's say you're going traditional - a nice bunch of flowers for your heart's desire. Just how much of that task can digital assistants take care of?

We put the main players through their paces - Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, Google Now and Amazon's Alexa.

Our command was "I want to send flowers to Old Street in London".

Google Now brought up a list of florists in the area. We tapped through and placed an order . . . job done. A bouquet called 'Be mine' for £25.99 was on its way.

OK, so that's a slight simplification. In fact, all they did was link to the florist's website. Placing an order then consisted of a lengthy amount of form filling and billing info to sort out.

Siri and Cortana performed in a similar way, each returning a different set of results for florists.

With all three assistants, if you don't specify where the flowers are going to, the search results will be based on your location.

All made the process simple and saved typing in search terms, but they only really did the searching part, after that was a fairly labourious process of form filling and credit card details - not exactly convenient.

Amazon's Alexa was the best for taking care of the whole job without having to lift a finger - but there are limits to what she can manage.

For a start, our command to send flowers to Old Street baffled her.

Saying just "I want to order flowers", though, had her come straight back with the top search result; Clare Florist's 'Summer Memories' bouquet for £25.55, before prompting "Do you want to buy it?"

Alexa is, of course, plugged into Amazon's sprawling marketplace and so what we were doing here was just shopping using voice rather than anything more sophisticated.

If you're in a hurry this is great, but you're left trusting to Alexa's taste as there's obviously no way to see what you're buying. There's also no clear way to tell Alexa to deliver to an address other than your own as the purchase is made using Amazon's 1-Click system.

Fine if you want to hand over the flowers yourself, less so if you want to retain an air of mystery.

For that you have to fire up the Alexa app to take control of the purchase and can then bounce into Amazon to change the delivery address - and actually get a look at the flowers and choose something else if you don't like what you're buying.

Go with Alexa, though, and it's as simple as speaking your order and then saying "Yes" to confirm your purchase. Eleven words and our flowers were on their way. The future is here.

Google Now, Siri and Cortana really only took the strain of searching.

A quick scroll through the options, a tap and then you're into a regular online shopping experience. Alternatively, you can ask Siri to call the florist and you can order over the phone but it's still you placing the order.

So for pure ease of buying some flowers, Alexa was clearly best. If you don't like what Alexa selects, however, it's difficult to browse other products and you're quickly encouraged to go to the Alexa app to see different options.

That can then lead on to browsing Amazon which you could have started with in the first place. Specific Alexa skills will solve such problems as they roll out, such as 1–800 Flowers in the US which lets account holders send flowers to anyone in their contacts.

Siri, Google Now and Cortana were far better for choice and control over delivery, while falling short of actually making the transaction and really only initiating an online shopping exercise.

What these assistants excel at is organising your life - managing your schedule, setting reminders and performing simple routine tasks. That's the best way to make them helpful for Valentine's Day, so you don't run out of time or forget altogether.

With Cortana and Siri, you can make reminders location-based by saying something like "Remind me to buy flowers when I'm near a florist".

But our tech is clearly some way off being able to source and purchase a bunch of flowers as easily and autonomously as a human assistant could.

Viv, the new assistant from the creators of Siri, promises to change the game, allowing you to place sophisticated orders using voice alone. But we'll have to wait until it launches to find out just how good it is, so maybe one to look out for to help out next Valentine's Day.

If it's true that the course of true love never did run smooth, technology isn't yet quite ready to make it easier.

This year, your virtual assistant can do a bit of the shopping legwork and some of them can help set the mood with a spot of romantic music. But beyond that, impressing the object of your desire will still take a more of the human touch.

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