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Is That A P.A. In Your Pocket?

Jenneth Orantia
Smarter Writer

Jenneth Orantia is a journalist who has been reporting on tech developments and trends for the last decade

Jenneth Orantia
Smarter Writer

Jenneth Orantia is a journalist who has been reporting on tech developments and trends for the last decade

The latest smartphones aren’t just clever by title. Advanced voice recognition and state-of-the-art artificial intelligence software allows smartphones to offer functionality that crosses over with the responsibilities of a personal assistant.

Corner of an iPhone 6

Siri's Service

When it comes to managing your calendar, Siri is equally sophisticated. Rather than making you open the Calendar app and laboriously enter all of the meeting details through the on-screen keyboard, you can simply fire Siri up (by long-pressing on the home button) and saying something like “Schedule an appointment with Lisa Black on 14 December at 9am at Marly Bar”, and it will gather all of those details and request confirmation before adding it to your calendar. The confirmation box lets you change any errors in voice recognition, and it’s smart enough to give you a heads up if you have any conflicting appointments.

Another big change in the latest generation of voice recognition software is that it actually works remarkably well, even taking into account the thick Australian drawl. Long gone are the days where you have to speak slowly and affect an American accent just to be understood – since all of the systems have been localised for the Australian accent, the new systems are remarkably adept at recognising speech provided you enunciate your words relatively clearly.

Scheduling with Siri

You can also ask Siri things like “what does the rest of my day look like?”, “remind me to call Johnno at 3pm”, “send a message to Rodi asking ‘Did you get there okay’”, and “where’s the nearest post office?”, and it will happily do your bidding and return any results where relevant.

Android smartphones offer similar functionality using the Google Now technology, only with the added benefit of being more pro-active. Essentially, it is able to pre-empt a lot of the commands you make before you make them by taking into account your Google searches, Gmail, Google Maps usage and your calendar. All of the relevant information is presented in the form of ‘cards’ on the Google Now screen, which is accessed by pressing the home button and swiping up from the bottom of the screen, or on Samsung phones, by long-pressing the home button and tapping the Google icon.

Google Now

If you always leave for work at a certain time, for instance, it remembers that and presents a card every morning that shows how long it will take you to get to work based on current traffic conditions. If you have a meeting scheduled for a certain time, it will notify you when you need to leave in order to make it there on time (again, taking into account current traffic conditions). If you have looked up a business in Google search, it will present a card for how to get there that you can tap on to launch Google Maps.

Other features in Google Now’s extensive bag of tricks include displaying flight status and hotel accommodation information for upcoming trips (this information is retrieved from booking emails), and the latest currency rates if it detects that you’re in a different country. All of this is regularly updated in the background, so you always have the latest information whenever you check your Google Now page. Additionally, any time-sensitive information like meeting alerts and flight changes are presented as push notifications so you see them immediately.

The Verdict

Can these software solutions replace a real-life personal assistant altogether? Not quite, but as you can see, they’re capable of a lot more than you may have realised. If you have a compatible smartphone, the amount of time you can save using Siri or Google Now as opposed to fiddling with your smartphone makes it well worth learning how these technologies work. Neither technology can make you coffee or pick up your mail for you, but at the very least they will be able to tell you where the nearest decent café is and how to get to the closest post office.

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