This question keeps coming up among owners of Alexa-enabled devices and I’ve answered it in countless emails and discussion group posts, but since it isn’t going away I figured I’d better do a post about it.
We’re Talking Internet Information Search, Not Factual Queries
Alexa can answer factual queries (e.g., how many pints in a gallon, how many miles from Los Angeles to New York, how old is Matt Damon, how tall is Mt. Everest, etc.) because in that case the answer is not a matter of opinion, taste or preference. The answers to factual queries are the same regardless of how you feel about them, and regardless of which source you might use to look up the answers.
It’s the non-factual queries we’re talking about today.
Internet Search Works Best With A Screen
Assuming you are not vision-impaired (in which case you probably use specialized tools to help with internet searches), every time you do an internet search your eyes and brain make a whole lot of decisions within milliseconds after the results screen loads. You may immediately tune out links from specific sites you don’t like, links that go to fishy-looking sites or sites you don’t recognize, links to articles or sites that may include your keyword but don’t actually have anything to do with the subject you’re interested in, shopping links when you’re looking for news, et cetera.
Do you really want to let Alexa, or any other piece of software, make all those decisions for you? Alternatively, do you really want Alexa to respond by reading you the first 3-5 link titles and descriptions, then prompting you to either select one or have the next batch of links read? Even if that were possible (and not annoying to have to sit through), without a screen to look at you’re still not being given all the information you usually use to decide which search results to click through on.
Many of those decisions are totally dependent on visual cues you see in the result set: if there’s a PDF icon, if the link is shaded to show you’ve visited it before, if there’s a photo or image attached to the link, and so on. Alexa can’t provide those visual cues.
Are you beginning to understand why it doesn’t make sense for Alexa to do general internet searches? Alexa can’t read your mind so Alexa can’t know precisely what you’re hoping to find, which results you’d reject immediately, which results you’d find trustworthy and so on.
But OK Google and Siri Can Do It, Can’t They?
No, not really. If a given piece of voice-activated software can respond to a general internet search query like, “What’s the correct temperature for cooking chicken?” then what’s really happening is that some engineer somewhere wrote an algorithm that makes the choice of which result to select and accept as accurate for you, and you’ll never know about the many other possible, and equally valid responses you might have found if you’d done an internet search in a browser instead.
You may have noticed that Google now often includes an enlarged and highlighted answer to many search queries at the top of the result set; I believe those are the “answers” you get when you ask OK Google a general search question. If you do a Google search on “correct temperature to cook chicken”, here’s what’s at the top of the result set: a fact about safe internal temperature for consumption:
But I wasn’t asking what the safe minimum internal temperature was for consuming chicken, I asked what temperature to cook it at. If you go to your Android mobile device and ask, “OK Google, what’s the correct temperature for cooking chicken?” the answer will be 165 degrees, followed by part of the blurb you see in the screenshot above: I just tested it myself. But the only time you’re going to cook chicken at 165 degrees is in a slow cooker or on a rotisserie, 165 degrees isn’t going to cut it for baking, broiling or frying.
The example of correct cooking temperature for chicken is a good one, because even if OK Google had given me a cooking temperature instead of a safe minimum internal temperature for consumption, the “correct” answer depends on many factors. Is it a whole chicken, or pieces? Do you plan to grill, bake, broil, boil, rotisserie, sauté or deep-fry the chicken, or prepare it in a slow cooker? Whatever response OK Google, Siri or any other digital assistant gives you can only possibly be correct for one of those cooking methods.
Personally, I prefer to make my own decisions about which sources of information to trust and which answers are the best fit for my specific questions. Don’t you?
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