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Google Home vs Amazon Echo vs Apple HomePod: Amazon's Alexa software kit helps ease third-party development

The sci-fi vision of a connected home is quickly becoming a reality: both Amazon and Google have launched smart assistants, with an Apple offering based on Siri was announced at WWDC 2017.

These products are designed to act as standalone hubs for your digital life. Voice activation systems allow users to ask questions, perform tasks control their IoT appliances, without even having to touch their phones.

We look at how the three major smart assistant products compare to each other, based on the information we’ve currently got. We'll be updating this article as and when we know more so please stay tuned...

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18/08/2017: Following Amazon's drive for third-party development on the Alexa platform, the company has now released a software kit that makes it easier for companies to develop their own devices powered by the smart assistant.

The Alexa Voice Service (AVS), which was released to the UK in February, allowed manufacturers to create products with Alexa voice controls built in. This has now been expanded with the release of the AVS Device SDK, providing a means for companies to create their own software that can process audio inputs and triggers, as well as granting access to the AVS API library.

Third-party devices will now able to handle speech recognition, media streaming, timers and alarms, weather reports and other custom skills, essentially creating a fully-functioning version of Alexa.

This also means that companies will be able to create more bespoke versions of Alexa for products aimed at the business market.

Marc Vontobel, CTO of Swiss-based AI firm Starmind, argued that the release of AVS Device SDK will allow developers to create products that solve many limitations that prevent AI powered devices from entering the workplace, including the lack of connection between human information sources.

"The typical default skill of Alexa is: 'What is', which commands her to look up information on Wikipedia. There are other skills to access our music or to switch lights on and off-- but anytime the answer is not available in the data set, Alexa will say: 'Sorry I didn't understand'," said Vontobel.

However, by using Amazon's SDK, companies will now be able to develop devices that "connect you to the right human to answer that question - then Alexa would learn from the human conversation and next time Alexa could give the right answer directly".

The AVS Device SDK is now generally available for all Alexa developers and users, and supporting documentation, including tutorials and a sample app, can be found on a dedicated support page.

10/07/2017: Smart home assistant dials 911 to stop alleged assault

A smart home device has intervened in an alleged violent assault, calling 911 in response to what it perceived to be a voice command.

New Mexico resident Eduardo Barros and his girlfriend were house sitting in a town 15 miles outside Albuquerque, with his girlfriend's daughter also being present, according to ABC News.

The two adults got into an argument, which reportedly escalated to a physical fight. According to the report, Barros threatened brandished a gun, asking her: "Did you call the sheriffs?"

A smart speaker in the home apparently heard this threat and took it as a command to call 911, Bernalillo County Sheriff Department spokeswoman Felicia Romero said.

Law enforcement officers responded to the call and were able to rescue the woman and the child, who haven't been named. A standoff between Barros, a crisis negotiation team and SWAT then ensued, but was ended without injury and the man was taken into custody.

In a statement, Bernalillo county sheriff Manuel Gonzalez said: "The unexpected use of this new technology to contact emergency services has possibly helped save a life. This amazing technology definitely helped save a mother and her child from a very violent situation."

The brand of the smart speaker involved hasn't been revealed.

The story is the latest relating to alleged crimes where a smart home device has been a crucial witness.

In Arkansas, prosecutors were earlier in the year locked in a battle with Amazon over an Amazon Echo belonging to an alleged murderer, as reported by CNN.

Benton County prosecuting attorney Nathan Smith believed the Echo may have picked up the sounds of the final moments of a man who was found dead in a hot tub. Amazon would have potentially been in possession of the audio files on its servers, but pushed back against the request on the grounds of privacy.

Things don't always go as intended when it comes to alerting emergency services via a smart home device. Late last year, a video emerged of a man telling his Amazon Echo he needed urgent medical assistance.

Alexa, the AI that powers the Echo, helpfully added the item to his shopping list.

28/06/2017: Amazon Echo Show offers Drop In snooping

The Amazon Echo Show could offer friends and family a little more than they bargained for, with the Drop In feature that allows people you know to watch what you're doing as and when they like.

However, Amazon will give you a bit of warning, blurring you out for ten seconds before you must decide whether to ignore the call, disable the camera or accept - if you're not doing anything too dodgy at the time.

Unsurprisingly, this has triggered privacy concerns, although you will have to turn it on from the settings menu of the touchscreen speaker-come-smart home device because it's turned off by default.

You can also pre-approve those who are allowed to just 'drop in', so it could be wise to limit the people who can watch you while you're showering, getting dressed or doing anything else private to those that know you best (and maybe not your mum, either).

"Drop In is an optional feature for Alexa customers to enable and use," an Amazon spokesperson told CNBC. "If customers decide to enable it, they have the option to turn on Do Not Disturb on one, or all, of their devices, which will block calls and messages from coming in. Customers will know when they are in a Drop In call as they will first hear a 'chime' and the green light on their Echo device will rotate throughout the call"

The company added Drop In could be useful to use as an intercom in a household, for example, to check in on an elderly relative, or to monitor a child being babysat if the parents are out for the evening.

26/06/2017: Google beats Amazon in home assistant trivia

Google Home is better at trivia than Amazon's Alexa, according to a competition between the two voice assistants run by marketing firm 360i. 

The New York agency developed its own software to pit the two AI-backed helpers against each other in a battle of their wits, asking each 3,000 unique questions. Google Home ran away with the competition, getting the correct answer six times more frequently than Amazon's Alexa, according to a report in AdWeek.

It's unclear whether Alexa was tripped up by its requirement to install "skills" before some questions can be asked, or if Home simply does better with search queries thanks to Google's rather extensive background in the subject. 

The results may lead trivia hungry smart assistant shoppers to favour Home, but so far Amazon's Echo leads the real battle: sales. Marketing research suggests 70% of smarGt assistant speakers will use Alexa in 2017, not Google Home or Apple HomePod. 

08/06/2017: Get live UK general election results through Alexa

Britain goes to the polls today to choose a new government to navigate the challenges ahead. Rather than staying glued to Jeremy Vine's graphic visualisations on election night, however, Amazon Echo owners can simply ask Alexa for an update.

Amazon's voice assistant will be able to provide a rundown of current polling information, as well as a summary of opinion polls, news and information on the major political parties and their respective leaders.

Users can also ask general questions about the election, such as who is eligible to vote and who can call a general election, as well as asking for the latest news and headlines surrounding the campaign.

When asked by the Independent if the information would come from Amazon internally or from third-party sources, the company said that the polling data "is part of Alexa's knowledge graph".

Once the ballots close, users will be able to receive live information on the results as they come in, including the results in specific regions, current seat totals for each party and the current overall winner.

Operating system

The Amazon Echo is powered by Alexa, an AI core built on AWS' cloud infrastructure. It’s essentially a voice-operated digital assistant, but thanks to machine learning algorithms, it’s designed to get smarter the more you use it, adapting to your vocabulary, speech patterns, and usage habits.

Google Now has been part of the company’s ecosystem for a while now, but it’s now been upgraded to become the Google assistant. Like Google Now, it works across the whole Google portfolio, including Android, ChromeOS and the new Google Home. It’s designed to respond in a natural, conversational manner to voice queries, and is also powered by cloud-based AI technology.

iPhone 7 Siri iOS 9

Apple was the first major company to introduce a digital assistant into its devices, with the launch of Siri. iPhone users can interact with their apps through Siri, and as of recent software upgrades, can also use Siri voice commands to control their Apple TV. This is what underpins Apple’s HomePod, allowing users to ask questions, control music playback and interact with HomeKit devices.

At the moment, the Google Assistant is the most useful of the current crop, with a wide range of commands, tasks and integrations with various services. It also understands context, meaning you can string consecutive requests together. However, it loses points for its speech engine, which doesn't sound quite as smooth and fluid as Alexa.

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