- What do law firm Knowledge Managers want? According to a survey by Casetext, basically, automated data collection and structuring, and for AI to automatically translate that data into useful information. Details from Artificial Lawyer here.
- From Artificial Lawyer: Lucy Bassli will be Chief Legal Strategist at Tel Aviv-based legal AI company LawGeex. She was previously in charge of contracting at Microsoft.
- DLA Piper is at it again with yet another AI-focused podcast. This one is, “TechLaw Podcast: The disruptive impact of AI and automation technologies.”
For Your Home: Smart Speakers and Voice Assistants
I’ve been promising a review of the latest smart speakers and voice assistants. Now that I’ve spent a weekend with Apple’s new HomePod, it’s time. Skip to the bottom if you just want my recommendations.
As I posted and discussed in some depth back on January 15, I have been testing Apple’s Siri and HomeKit since they first appeared several years ago (I’m in Apple’s User Beta program), Alexa for almost a year and Google Home since November. My interest in home automation goes back to the early 1980s when I implemented several devices using the X10 protocol. We have certainly come a long way since my X10 days, not so much in terms of what can be done to automate a home, but in terms of external connectivity (i.e., Internet), reliability and ease of use.
Since that post back in January, I have added Alexa to my Prius via Roav’s VIVA, and as I mentioned, I finally have an Apple HomePod smart speaker. I have brought home, tested and returned (thank you Best Buy), the best speakers for Alexa and Google Assistant.
Microsoft slowly rolled out Cortana in 2015-2016, but I don’t consider it worth including here. I’m not sure Microsoft does either (at least not in your home) as several Microsoft devices have announced Alexa support.
There are several others (e.g., Samsung “Bixby“) that are either way behind technically or have very small market share, so I won’t go there.
It’s hard to believe but Siri first appeared on the iPhone 4S back in 2011. She has been part of our culture every since (Raj even got to meet her back in Season 5 of The Big Bang Theory). If you have an iPhone or iPad, I’ll assume you’re very familiar with her; if you’re not immersed in the Apple ecosystem she’s really not relevant. Siri is tightly integrated with iTunes, AppleTV and Apple Music.
I find Apple’s HomeKit, controlled by Siri to be the best home automation system. (More on that below.)
Siri has been around the longest, but is significantly less capable than Amazon’s Alexa or Google’s Home Assistant. For instance, Siri can only manage one timer at a time — a drawback when I’m preparing a big meal.
The next iOS release is scheduled to add several important features to Siri and the Apple home environment.
She (or a male voice for “he”) is activated by “Hey Siri.”
Amazon introduced Alexa in late 2014 along with its first Echo device. Alexa is relevant no matter what what sort of phone or tablet you use, and it supports a broad array of home automation devices (lights, switches, door locks, thermostats, blinds, garage doors, etc.). Alexa supports most music streaming services, if you’re using Amazon devices; otherwise, it gets limited and complicated. Check here for details. If you are an Amazon Prime subscriber (and thus Audible and Prime Music), you’re all set. I use the Alexa app for iOS (i.e., Apple) devices. Alexa is tightly integrated with shopping via Amazon, and it can read your Kindle books to you.
You have four choices for activating Alexa: “Echo,” “Alexa,” “Amazon” or “Computer.” This is absolutely one of my favorite things about Alexa; I just love being to wake it up with, “computer.”
One other Alexa note: I’ve added Alexa in my car by means of a Roav VIVA. It’s a cool idea, but isn’t ready for prime time. It’s not great at listening, the connection is spotty, the commands are limited and you can’t wake it up with “computer.”
Google Assistant was introduced less than two years ago in mid-2016. It’s available on Android devices and there’s an Apple app for that. With a Chromecast dongle, you can control television programming somewhat like AppleTV, but the programming is not nearly as broad. Google Assistant is more conversational than Siri or Alexa. For instance (slightly shortened):
[Me] “Hey Google, let’s cook some roast chicken.”
[Google] “I have a recipe from Cooking NY Times. It takes about an hour to make. Shall we try it?”
[Google] “Would you like to prepare the ingredients or skip to the instructions?”
And so on.
Shopping is available through third part retailers (e.g., Walmart, Target, Cosco, Home Depot) via the somewhat cumbersome “Google Express”.
If you have more than one Google Home device, you can use them as an intercom.
One of my favorite things about Google Assistant (unavailable with Alexa or Siri) is the ability to string together items to be read to you (called “daily briefing”). For instance, when I enter my kitchen in the morning, I say “Hey Google, good morning,” and Google proceeds to give me a weather report, read whatever is on my calendar for the day, and read the latest news from my selected sources (i.e., NPR News Now, NPR Technology, BBC Minute, PBS Newshour Science and WSJ Tech News Briefing).
Google’s vast knowledge base makes Google Assistant much more capable than Siri or Alexa at answering random questions.
The wake up phrase for Goggle Assistant can be “Hey Google,” or “OK Google.”
All three will help you find your phone by calling it.
All three are good at home automation, but I give the edge here to Siri because of its greater security than the others (more on this below). But you are somewhat limited in hardware choices if you go with Apple as some manufacturers (e.g., Nest) don’t comply with Apple’s security requirements. I find I have all I need with Apple’s HomeKit and: August door locks, Philips light bulbs, WeMo and Lutron switches, Chamberlain garage door openers and ecobee thermostats. All of three assistants do “scenes.” For instance, when I wake up and say, “Hey Siri, good morning,” the lights in my bedroom come on low, the lights in my kitchen come on at 100%, and my thermostats go to my preferred daytime temperatures.
All three can use “geofencing” to trigger actions. For instance, when I leave the range of my WiFi, all lights in my home go out (except porches) and the thermostats go to their “unoccupied” setting. When I return to the range of my WiFi network, the thermostats go back to whatever’s normal for that time of day, and (if it’s between sunset and sunrise) one light comes on on each floor.
Google Assistant and Alexa can recognize different voices and respond appropriately, for instance, “play MY favorite songs.” Siri can’t.
All three voice assistants have many other capabilities (e.g., order a pizza, call Uber, or give you a weather report). All three are adding more capabilities almost every day. Alexa has by far the most capabilities (25,000+ “skills”), but I don’t consider this a big deal as most people focus on the same few tasks. According to research from Edison Research published by NPR last month, the most common tasks by daypart are:
Amazon and Google have several speaker options. The cheapest are Echo Dot ($50) for Amazon Alexa and Google Home Mini ($50) for Google Assistant. Both are frequently on sale. For their size and cost, both sound remarkably good and listen well. Get one for each of the rooms in which you spend the most time. Apple’s Siri only has the just-released HomePod ($350), but Siri is easily controlled by your iPhone or iPad, one of which is probably with you most of the time.
All are very easy to set up — HomePod is easiest.
If what you really care about is audiophile quality sound, the best speakers for Apple, Google or Alexa are not smart speakers. None of the smart speaker options available for any of the three come close sonically to the equipment you probably already have in your home. (For me, that’s a Pioneer Elite SC-95 receiver and Bowers & Wilkins 700 series speakers.) There is absolutely no comparison between a good traditional home sound system and any smart speaker. So, for optimal sound, use WiFi or Bluetooth to send music from your phone or tablet to your home theater or other serious sound system. I’ve found AppleTV the easiest way to do this in my environment.
If you want the best possible sound from a smart speaker, here are the best options:
Apple HomePod $350
This is easily your best sounding option across all three platforms, and it’s less expensive than the most expensive options from Google and Amazon (see below). I have been a serious audio junkie my whole life and this is the first speaker in decades to really “wow” me. It is amazing what you get in this small package at this price.
It’s only relevant if you’re ready for complete commitment to the Apple ecosystem, partly because of the $350 cost.
Echo is the only smart speaker with a “line out,” enabling you to use the device to listen for your commands but use a much better sounding speaker for listening. (In my office I use a Bowers & Wilkins A7, $400.)
Google Home Max $399
This unit sounds very good, but not as good as the HomePod or Sonos Play:5. Again, if you really want great sound, no smart speaker comes anywhere close to what you may already have in your living room.
To my surprise, a recent survey reported that many Google and Amazon device owners plan to buy HomePods.
One of the complaints about the Apple ecosphere is that products and services are introduced too slowly. This is largely because Apple has been so demanding regarding customer privacy — much more so than Google or Amazon. This security focus has not diminished, and I’m OK with it. When in doubt, I go with Apple because of these extra security measures.
You’ll find much more about security and some fun Easter eggs here.
This 38-minute podcast does a good job of predicting where smart homes are headed. (Spoiler alert: you’ll have a lot more time on your hands to be doing things you really want to do.)
Bottom Line Recommendations
It largely depends on your phone — and whether you’ll regularly be using your smart speaker for music.
If you’re an iPhone person, stick with Siri in your pocket or plugged in. Get the HomePod if you’ll be using the voice assistant for music. I expect that Siri will catch up to the Google and Alexa assistants regarding the most important capabilities. Until it does, add a couple of Google Home Minis ($40 on sale) in the rooms where you spend most of your time. (This is because the Google Assistant is so much better at general inquiries.)
If you use Amazon Music, get an Echo Dot and connect it to a good speaker. Or get a Sonos speaker with Alexa built in. It’s probably worth also getting a couple of Google Home Minis for the rooms where you spend most of your time.
Otherwise, if you have a streaming music service (e.g., Spotify, Slacker, Pandora), go with Google. Get one of their speakers and Chromecast ($35) to connect to your TV. If your TV is connected to some really good speakers, this will be excellent for music too.
These cartoons from the Marketoonist summarize pretty well where we are today with this tech. For instance: