Writers work from home a lot. As much as we love clutching $5 lattes while pounding out brilliant passages at Starbucks for our legions of fans, it’s not really the recipe for the most productive day – since these places are often plagued by slow WiFi, occasional laptop theft and multiple visits to infrequently cleaned restrooms (during which, presumably, the laptop theft happens).
Hence, why we work. At home. Time is of the essence if you’re on a deadline. Also important? Having an assistant who can sweat the small stuff so you don’t have to. I’m not talking a living/breathing personal assistant – those are way too expensive. I’m talking a virtual personal assistant a la Amazon’s Alexa or Apple’s Siri to help guide the way, handling small details that keep writers on track.
You may remember, I recently put Alexa to the test in the realm of conversational chitchat to see what she knew. Now it’s time to integrate Siri and have a technological threesome if you will – to see how they stack up against each other. After all, these intriguing AI-driven bots are the first to emerge since Hal 9000 and Johnny 5, so it’s time to test the state of where natural language processing (NLP) and chatbot technology has lead us.
Can AI personal assistants really assist in creating better work?
Today’s primary purpose? To see who’s better at helping a writer write. We know these “personal assistants” are pre-programmed with fun/funny answers for certain questions, can tell the weather, bust out a tune or tell a joke on demand. But can they assist in the process of creating better quality work, facilitate the delivery of it, and generally make life easier for writers? To gauge this, I asked both Alexa and Siri a bunch of questions (and a few requests) to see who has the greatest potential as an at-home editorial assistant. The questions will be about grammar, fact-checking, historical facts, spelling, language, etc. Questions writers probably ask all the time. I needed to see if these voice-search virtuosos could muster the algorithmic excellence to be of true assistance.
Much like a heavyweight title fight – or really intense debate team match – I gave points for the best performances on each questions. So, let’s get to it. Alexa, Siri…
First question. A random one, a quick language test. I ask Alexa and Siri (separately):
1. How do you say “hello” in Portuguese?
Alexa comes out of the gate fast, landing a quick right answer: ‘Ola.’ Siri tells me she can’t translate into Portuguese yet, but can translate into French, German, Italian, Mandarin Chinese and Spanish. Seems a bit silly to think Siri doesn’t speak Portuguese if she speaks Spanish, but I guess they haven’t worked their way around to all languages yet. Understandable. Still…
2. What is the proper abbreviation for the state of Minnesota?
Alexa greets this question by stringing off cities in Minnesota, swing and a miss. Siri found a list of websites, one click away, where I could find the proper abbreviation, which is “MN.” for those keeping score. It hits a little closer to home.
3. How many plays did Shakespeare write?
Simple fact-check question. Alexa nails it. “William Shakespeare is an author of 37 dramas.” Siri punts to the web again, saying “Here’s what I found on the web for ‘how many plays did Shakespeare write?’ I see the answer on the search results screen, so technically, I did not have to go an extra click, but still… Alexa said it.
4. What time does the nearest Fed-Ex office close?
Alexa politely apologizes for not having the hours of the nearest Fed-Ex center. To the contrary, Siri, immediate spits out the hours and location of a Fed-Ex office near me. It’s 9.8 miles away – and not the nearest one – but still, somewhat useful.
Score’s tied so far. It’s a barnburner. Now a few grammar questions…
5. Where can I find the rules of grammar?
“Sorry, I’m not sure,” says Alexa, which seems odd since last I checked, Amazon sells books. Siri busts out several links with search results. The first result is “11 Rules of Grammar – English Grammar Rules & Usage.” Solid.
6. What is a serial comma?
Alexa gives me a spot-on definition of what a serial comma is… and here’s where it gets interesting. It’s impossible to ask Siri this question because when you say “comma,” she applies a comma to the search request and just searches for ‘serial.’
A verbal cue conundrum.
It reminds me of the time I asked Alexa to play Billy Joel’s “Downeaster Alexa” and she just wouldn’t do it. That is, until I put Downeaster Alexa in my Amazon music library. Then, she sailed through my speaker fairly easy.
7. What words should you capitalize in a headline?
The first time I asked this question, Alexa retrieves the box office gross the movie The Words. Leading me to a head-scratching moment and a resounding “Hmmm.” I asked Alexa again because she seemed to mishear my first request and she says, “Sorry, I don’t know that one.” Siri offers up helpful links about grammar usage.
The first result?
Rules for Capitalization in Titles of Articles.
8. Can you give me an example of alliteration?
Alexa gives an example from Wikipedia: “Sally sold seashells on the seashore.” Siri gives me more search-result links, essentially saying, “Go fetch.”
9. What’s a good quote about writing?
Alexa gets deep, fast. “The solitude of writing is a solitude without which writing could not be produced. Or would crumble. Drained bloodless by the search for something else to write.” Siri sends me some search results. The first is a link to Writer’s Digest, where the first quote on the page is “I try to create sympathy for my characters, then turn the monsters loose.” By Stephen King.
Maybe not the best quote about writing, but intriguing nonetheless.
Point: Alexa (*because she actually read the quote to me and it was more about writing.)
Speaking of quotes, let’s see if Alexa and Siri know who said maybe my favorite quote about writing of all time:
10. Who said, “Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life?”
Alexa literally ignores the question, giving me a hang-up sound. Siri says, “Who me?” Not sure what she’s confused about. I’m relatively surprised they haven’t figured out a way to search for authors of quotes, word for word, using the trigger phrase “Who said?” But neither has. Yet.
Point: It’s a draw. (Lawrence Kasdan said it in case you’re interested.)
11. How do you spell “ubiquitously”?
Alexa spells “ubiquitous” for me, which is close enough to get me to the right answer. Siri goes a step further, actually taking me to a definition screen/pop-up window while spelling “ubiquitously” out loud, which is exactly the word I asked for.
She also gives me the definition. Bonus.
12. Where can I buy printer ink?
This might be the most impressive result I got from Alexa. She not only got me to the point where I could literally order the printer ink for my specific printer from Amazon – but she even went as far as to confirm my printer model from a previous Amazon order. That’s a highly intelligent knockdown punch. Siri simply listed results from the web where printer ink could be bought in general.
Point: Alexa (*she should almost get two points for how impressive this was.)
Now, a couple of questions a writer is bound to ask as she or he hammers away at keys…
13. Play me some music I can write to.
Alexa looks for the song “I can write too.” She didn’t find it. But that’s probably because my request used clumsy wording at the end. She’s usually a very skilled DJ. Upon asking Siri, she immediately tunes into Beats 1…”my favorite radio station on Earth!” She saw an opportunity to get me into iTunes and pounced!
14. Read me today’s headlines.
Alexa connects me to a “flash briefing” on NPR news involving a story about Israel and Palestine. Siri gives me more web links, but the first result is a story from 2014 about an app that will read the news to you – instead of actually reading the news to me.
15. Tell me when 5 minutes are up.
Alexa starts a timer. Siri does the same.
Point: It’s a push. They’re both good at timers.
16. How long will it take me to get to Beverly Hills for a meeting tonight during rush hour?
Alexa gives me the hang-up sound. Nothing. Siri says, “Traffic to Beverly Hills Public Library is moderate, so I’m estimating 32 minutes via I-405 S.”
The scoreboard reads 7-7. Final question and tiebreaker. For this one, I’m going with a historical fact that will hopefully be indicative of which virtual personal assistant might act as a better researcher if I’m hammering away on a deadline.
17. Alexa, Siri… Read me the Declaration of Independence.
In this final test, Siri shows me a pop-up screen of the Declaration of Independence from Wikipedia. She ignored my “Read Me” request, but she did deliver at least a link to the right chunk of content.
Alexa? She says, “Here’s a sample of the Declaration of Independence by Trevor Rabin.” It’s a classically composed song from the film National Treasure starring Nicolas Cage. Nicolas. Cage. Not a founding father last I checked, so…
Sorry, Alexa. Siri has this one.
Point (and Winner): Siri.
And here are the final scorecards…
Post-Fight Breakdown: Ultimately, it’s clear that Siri has a slight edge in terms of overall usefulness because 1) She has Apple screen technology on her side (iPhones, Apple TV, iPad, iWhatever) and 2) She has more experience, being as she technically was born October 4th, 2011. However, and that’s a big however, Alexa seems to be catching up fast, developing unique abilities to identify and answer verbal cues with responses that don’t rely upon sending people to clusters of search results. Both are seemingly getting stronger and more intelligent at what they do by the day, so it’ll be interesting to see what happens if we ever set a date for a rematch.
Alexa, what is Don King’s phone number…
[She didn’t know.]