Monday, January 18, 2016

AI Smackdown - Moto vs. Cortana vs. Siri

NOTE:  This post is rated R for mild strong language.


I already blogged about my Android phone—not the way a professional critic would, but in terms of what’s actually interesting about it, which to me is the Artificial Intelligence angle.  Actually, “artificial stupidity” was the point:  a phone playing dumb so it can play favorites.  I’ve also blogged a bit about AI in general, with Apple’s Siri agent as a case study, but that was before I had an iOS device.  Now, I own all three platforms:  Moto/Android; Siri; and Microsoft’s Cortana.  In this post I compare and contrast them: not because I’m going to help you choose, but to try to make you laugh.  And you might have something interesting to scratch your head about later.

(I’m not going to try to differentiate between the terms Google Now, Android, and Moto.  They all meld in my mind.  If somebody protests that there are massive differences, I won’t be offended if you go read his or her blog instead.)


I’ll start with Cortana because it can be dispatched very quickly.  If you type something into the Cortana field in Windows 10, it does a Bing search.  Bing is a little bit like using a Curad bandage instead of a Band-Aid, or using Hunts ketchup instead of Heinz, or wearing Sears Toughskins jeans instead of Levi’s.  It just isn’t done.  I don’t actually care if Bing works just fine.  It’s Bing, which means it’s not Google. “Let me Bing that for you.”  Give me a break.

Moreover, before you can get into the voice recognition stuff, you have to deal with this frightening disclaimer:

Yes, I know all this meddlesome snooping is just to “tailor the experience,” but it’s the online equivalent of your tailor saying, “To get the fit right on these trousers, I’ll have to reach in and fondle your balls.”  The explicit information Windows wants to use is bad enough, but that wide-open phrase “and other information” is just over the top.

Besides, “Cortana” sounds like a new model of Hyundai.  You know what Microsoft?  It’s over.  You lost.  You’re just a PC software company.  Stop trying to act “mobile.”


I won’t go into a lot of detail about how well my Android phone responds to voice commands, because a) I already did that, here; and b) as I describe the Siri experience, I’ll compare it to Android/Moto as I go.

The really lame thing about Siri

Imagine if, before engaging with a person, you had to go push a button on the person’s chest.  In most cases, this would be absurd.  (With my kids, who never hear my commands, it would actually be an improvement.)

I think it almost goes without saying that voice response is a minimum requirement for any kind of AI.  The Siri demo I watched way back in 2012 did feature voice activation on the iPhone.  But oddly enough, for the Siri voice response to work on the iPad, the iPad has to be plugged in to an electrical outlet.  That is just so bizarre!  I mean, the iPad’s portability is the whole point, isn’t it?  What’s next for Apple:  an iPhone you plug into an RJ-11 jack?  This is ridiculous.  If I’m sitting at a desk next to an electrical outlet, I might as well be using a laptop.

There’s something else really lame about the iPad:  a limitation that hasn’t existed on an Apple product since the Apple II computer.  But I’ll get into that later.  Better to keep you in suspense.

Siri voice response:  up to snuff?

In general, Siri tries to have a bit more personality than Moto.  For example, if I ask my Droid, “Do you love me?” it shows me a song called “Do you love me?” by the Contours.  (My younger daughter, who has not seen “Her,” put me up to asking this question.)  When I asked Siri if she loved me, she responded, “I respect you.”  And when (again at my daughter’s behest) I asked Siri, “Have you ever gone to the bathroom?” she replied, “Who, me?”

Is this cheekiness a good thing?  Well, Siri’s responses may strike you as funnier that Moto’s.  On the other hand, when I asked my Droid about using the bathroom, I got a list of hits pertaining to using the wrong restroom (i.e., the one intended for the opposite sex).  It was a very funny list, linking to some amusing sites.  (You may be wondering:  have I ever used the wrong restroom?  Well, yes, once, purely by accident.  I was in there doing my business and thinking, “What kind of public restroom doesn’t have urinals?”  When the answer suddenly came to me, I hightailed it right on out of there.)

Sometimes Siri’s personality gets in the way.  For example, I asked Siri, “What time is it?” and she responded, “At the third stroke, it will be 16:26.  Beep.  Beep. Beep.”  This was more confusing than amusing, and besides, it was inaccurate:  the actual time was like 4:25:30.  I would rather Siri have a more reliable connection to the NIST Internet time servers than a zingy response.

If your desk is as cluttered as mine, being able to summon your phone by voice is very handy.  When I call out my keyphrase for my Droid, it makes a pretty loud two-tone beep to let me know it’s listening.  The iPad beep is much quieter.  Neither device responds in any useful way to the question, “Where are you?”  Siri says, “Wherever you are, that’s where I am.”  This isn’t that funny, and for most people wouldn’t even be true.  (I bring my iPad, Droid, silverware, and all other valuables with me wherever I go, so don’t bother burglarizing my house.)

 This is where these devices are inconsistent.  Their programmers need to decide if the device should have a sense of self or not.  Siri speaks in the first person (e.g., “Who, me?” and “I respect you”), but when I say, “Hey Siri, how’s your battery doing?” she has no idea what “your” means.  She replies, “My apologies ... I couldn’t find those stocks.”  Pretty useless.

When I tell my Droid, “Find my phone,” it makes this cool sonar sound continuously until I find and silence it.  When I tell Siri “Find my iPad,” she tries to make me turn on Location Services.  Look, Siri, if I could do that, I’d know where you are, and I wouldn’t be asking.

I’ve often thought that one of the most useful features of voice response would be getting help configuring the device.  So I said, “Hey Siri, turn on your flash.”  She replied,  “Who, me?”  I decided some context might help, so within the camera app I said to turn on the flash.  Siri replied, “It doesn’t look like you have an app named ‘flash.’  If you’d like, I can help you look for it on the App Store.”  I just don’t think this is that difficult a concept.  You have a camera.  It has a flash.  Turn it on.

The Droid does respond to “Take a selfie.”  It ought to say, “I can’t,” because its camera is basically its face.  But its reaction, which is to launch the camera, put it in selfie mode, and set a self-timer, is actually fairly useful, at least for the hands-free breed of narcissist.  When I tell Siri “take a selfie,” she says, “You’ll need to unlock your iPad first.”  This isn’t very helpful, and in fact isn’t even true.  As my older daughter discovered, the iPad can be used as a camera even by somebody who lacks my fingerprint and passcode.  And when I follow Siri’s instructions and unlock the iPad, it does go into camera mode, but not selfie mode.  As regards this command, Siri is fairly incompetent.

Something that bothers me about my Droid’s AI is a certain lack of resourcefulness.  When I ask it, “How do I look?” I think it should activate the camera in selfie mode, to use as a mirror.  Or It could really wow me by saying, “Your hair is a mess.”  (When you consider modern digital camera technology, which can tell if a subject’s eyes are closed, this hairdo check actually seems quite doable.) 

I asked Siri, “How do I look?” and she really stumbled.  She kept hearing, “How do I luck,” which she should have automatically revised because it just doesn’t make any sense.  One time, she thought I asked, “How do I lurk?” and replied, “I found something on the web about ‘how do I lurk.’ Check it out.”  That’s really unfortunate.  I wonder what kind of banner ads and spam I’ll get now that the Internet thinks I’m a stalker.

Finally Siri heard me right and replied, “Judging by your voice, I’d say you must be fairly attractive.”  Clever, but also kind of patronizing.  I mean, it’s bad enough asking an inanimate object such a personal question, but to be damned with faint praise ... that’s pretty pathetic.  I think Siri should be generous and say, “I would so go to bed with you.”

At least Siri respects my privacy.  When I said, “Get me home,” she replied, “I don’t know your home address.  In fact, I don’t know anything about you.”  I found this really reassuring, especially after Cortana’s attempted shakedown earlier.  (Yes, Siri did ask me to go into settings and identify myself, but didn’t require it.)

I have to say, though, there’s something a bit creepy about Siri.  When I ask something complicated, such as a question regarding navigation, there’s this little blurry light that bounces back and forth along the bottom edge of the screen, which reminded me of something sinister.  After racking my brain for awhile I realized what:  the single roving eye of a Cylon from “Battlestar Galactica.”  Is Siri some kind of kindred spirit to the AI powering the Cylons?  If so, that doesn’t reflect well ... the Cylons were really pretty stupid.  They always went down like bowling pins.

Another creepy thing:  when I said, “Hey Siri, lock my iPad,” she replied, “I’d like to, but I cannot.  My apologies.”  This almost gave me chills.  It brought me right back to the HAL 9000 in “2001 – A Space Odyssey,” when Dave says, “Open the pod bay doors, HAL,” and HAL replies, “I’m sorry, Dave.  I’m afraid I can’t do that.”  Who is Siri’s master:  me, or Apple?

Feature parity with Moto?

If I were designing Siri, or working on an update package, I’d pay close attention to what the competition is doing.  I’d make sure, for example, that anything Moto could do, Siri could do better.  This evidently hasn’t occurred to Apple, because there are all kinds of commands Moto can handle that Siri cannot.  For example, if you ask Moto, “What’s up?” it will trawl through your appointments, e-mails, etc. and give you an update.  I asked Siri “What’s up?” and she said, “I’m thinking about pie.  Mmmmmm.” 

If you tell Moto, “Talk to me,” it will announce incoming calls and texts for the next 30 minutes.  This doesn’t occur to Siri, who responds, “I’d really prefer it if you talked to me.  Tell me your hopes, your dreams, where you’d like to make a dinner reservation.”  So I told Siri, “I hope my dinner is yummy tonight.”  She replied, “I don’t know what you mean by ‘I hope my dinner is yummy tonight.’  How about a web search for it?”  Not a very good listener, since she specifically asked me to tell her my hopes!  Just lip service.  I said, “I dream of being rich and famous one day,” and got the same “I don’t know what you mean” response.

I said, “Hey Siri, play Beethoven on YouTube.”  She replied, “You don’t seem to have an app named ‘YouTube.’ We could see if the App Store has it.”  Don’t play dumb with me, Siri!

I asked Siri to zap my screen (which is how Moto is told to take a screen snapshot).  Siri kept hearing “zapped my screen” (which resulted in a web search) and then eventually heard “zap ice cream,” and—bizarrely—pulled up a Dairy Queen in Beulah, North Dakota.  I’m not kidding.

Since screen snapshots are really useful to bloggers, I kept trying:  “Hey Siri, take a screen snapshot.”  To my great surprise, Siri didn’t play dumb, but simply refused:  “That’s beyond my abilities at the moment.”  Huh?  No way is this beyond her abilities.  I managed to learn (no thanks to Siri) how to get a snapshot (pressing two far-flung buttons at once).  So it can be done.  Why can’t Siri do it?  Is she a bit ... simple?

You may be wondering how I know so many cool Moto commands.  It’s because you can say, “Get a list of commands,” and Moto provides one.  I told Siri, “Get a list of commands” and though—as you can see—she did hear me right, she decided just to show me a map of the nearest Coast Guard station.  WTF!?

Is Siri the best at anything?

Okay, I’ve been pretty harsh on Siri here.  Is she better than Moto at anything?  Well, yes.  I think her navigation is better.  I just asked Moto, “Where is the nearest pizza place?” Moto replied, “Here are the listings for ‘nearest pizza place’ within zero point eight miles.”  The nearest place—Gioia Pizzeria—was listed first among non-paid entries, but at the top of the screen was an ad for Little Caesars $5 Pizza, which a) isn’t nearby, and b) isn’t even pizza.  (I don’t know what that stuff is, but it ain’t pizza.)  Meanwhile, if I were trying to get this answer without having to look at my phone—like, if I were driving—this written response would be useless.  (At least Moto did better than when I first blogged about this, when it lied and said Zachary’s Pizza was the closest.)

Here, Siri did better.  She replied, aloud, “The nearest one I found is Gioia in Berkeley, which averages 4½ stars and is inexpensive.  Would you like to try it?”  Presumably if I’d said yes, she’d have navigated there.  Instead I said, “Actually, Siri, it’s pretty expensive.”  To which she replied, “I’m sorry.”  Well played, Sir[i]!

It’s in the realm of a more specific request where Siri really shines.  I asked, “Where’s the nearest deep dish Chicago style pizza place?”  She showed me Zachary’s, which is correct.  I’m pretty impressed, especially since when I asked Moto the same question, it showed me Giordano’s and Lou Malnati’s, both of which are in Chicago.  As you can see, Moto clearly heard “nearest” correctly, but somehow missed my meaning.

The second really lame thing about iPads

Earlier I complained about how you have to plug in the iPad to get voice activation, and promised to reveal another huge shortcoming.  I doubt you’ll immediately grasp how lame this next one is, but here goes:  Apple iOS doesn’t support the Dvorak keyboard layout, which is  more efficient than QWERTY and has been supported by Apple since the Apple IIc.  According to Wikipedia, the IIc  “had a mechanical switch above the keyboard whereby the user could switch back and forth between the QWERTY layout and the Dvorak layout.... The IIc Dvorak layout was even mentioned in 1984 ads, which stated that the World’s Fastest Typist, Barbara Blackburn, had set a record on an Apple IIc with the Dvorak layout.”
I haven’t been able to find anything on the Internet about why Apple decided not to support Dvorak on the iPad.  I guess the default answer for their product choices—“Because we’re gods, and we can do whatever we want!”—will have to do.  It’s so frustrating, since this has got to be really simple to do in software.  It would probably take some Apple developer about five minutes.

But why should you care, since you type on QWERTY anyway?  Well, consider the security ramifications of encouraging third party developers to create such fundamental utilities as keyboard software.  After installing Fleksy, a free Dvorak-enabled app, I messed about with the iPad a little, wandered off to do something more useful, and then realized, “Duh, I’ve just done something really stupid.”  What better way to steal somebody’s keystrokes than to create an app that quite obviously has access to everything I type?

At first I told myself this was no big deal.  After all, I’m mainly using the iPad to browse the web, and I don’t kid myself that my every move on the Internet isn’t already tracked, and not just by the NSA.  (By the way, keep up the good work, guys!  Thanks for keeping me safe!)

But of course, there’s the little matter of passwords.  I felt like I’d just given away the keys to the kingdom, or at least to the two websites I’d logged into (my bank and my e-mail).  I was all set to go change those two passwords, but first decided to see how hard it is to switch iPad keyboards on the fly, so going forward I could type passwords with the native Apple iOS keyboard.  Perhaps there would be a function key right on the soft Fleksy keyboard to simplify this switch?  And then I noticed this:

It might be hard to tell, but in the first snapshot above, the cursor is in the Username field.  In the second snapshot, the cursor is in the Password field.  The same flag that tells the OS to obscure the password (i.e., showing ******* instead of what’s typed) tells the iPad to switch to the standard Apple iOS keyboard.  So those passwords I typed before? I’d typed them on the standard QWERTY  keyboard without even realizing it.  Those passwords weren’t at risk of being intercepted by the Fleksy keyboard app after all.  That’s pretty clever of Apple, isn’t it?

Of course, when your cleverness only serves the mitigate the downside of your pointless shortcoming, it’s actually a lot less impressive.  Hey Apple, why not support the Dvorak layout to begin with, like you did with the Apple IIe, the Apple III, the Macintosh, the Quadra, the PowerBook, the Performa, the iMac, the iBook, and the MacBook?

At the time of this writing, Apple is sitting on over $200 billion in cash.  Couldn’t they spend a few bucks to match the features of their own earlier products?  Hell, they could probably get an unpaid intern to do it.  I, for one, am not feeling the love ... even if Siri does claim to respect me.



    1. Thanks for the article. Lots of cool links to follow there, too! I'm amused that Musk thinks it's safest for everybody to have AI, whereas Goertzel thinks it's safest if only a small number of researchers do.