Should Our AI Agents Be Always With Us? Or Sit On a Table? Siri?

Amazon Echo

Our artificial intelligence agents can either be embedded in our computers and/or mobile devices. Or they can reside in a cute little cyhlinder that sits on a table. Which is better? Which is the future? Which should you invest in? Maybe Siri knows.


Apple’s CEO Tim Cook has said that our AI’s should always be with us. During Apple’s 2016 Q4 Earnings Call, he said:

I think that most people would like an assistant with them all the time. I think the advantage of one on the phone will likely be much greater… we’ve shipped more assistant-enabled devices than probably anyone out there.

And it’s true. In the 2016 holiday quarter, Apple shipped 78 million iPhones, 13 million iPads, and 5.4 million Macs. All of them have Siri. This doesn’t even include Apple Watches. The research firm Canalys estimates Apple sold 6 million of those last quarter. All in all, that’s over 100 million Siri enabled devices in one quarter.

Meanwhile, how many Amazon Echos were sold? Consumer Intelligence Research estimates Amazon sold 5.2 million for all of 2016. Ouch. (Although I did see this fantasy just as I started to publish. I don’t believe it.)

Amazon Echo Dot responding to "computer" instead of "Alexa"
The Amazon Echo Dot is the Echo’s little brother.

Why The Big Fuss?

So why has the Echo made such a big splash? First, Amazon doesn’t make its own computers as Apple does. So Amazon, if it’s going to make its first break into the AI market, has to build those cute little stand-alone cylinders that sit on a table. And to sell a lot of them, the company’s ads have to be spectacularly good at explaining the benefits. By example. Apple, in contrast, isn’t doing much of that.

Amazon has indeed done a good job of explaining and celebrating the Echo in its TV ads. Plus, the Echo and Echo Dot are good looking pieces of hardware bringing forth a tangible physical manifestation. However, the downside of these cute little cylinders is that when you leave the room, you’re out of contact. One solution is to buy a lot of them and spread them around the house. Unsavory. Or one can use some ingenious technology, like the Ninety7Life Vaux, a battery powered speaker system that cradles the Dot and allows you to move the pair from room to room.

The Ninety7Life Vaux battery powered speaker for Dot.
The Ninety7Life Vaux battery powered speaker also powers the Wi-FI Dot.

But that seems so awkward. Will the users really remember to grab the Vaux and Dot pair every time they leave the room? Meanwhile, if your iPhone isn’t in your pocket, your Apple Watch certainly is on your wrist. Everywhere. Even the bathroom.

Pros and Cons

Recently, I spoke with Microsoft about this. Microsoft’s Ben Rudolph explained that Cortana is always with him, either in his office or in the Surface that he carries with him. Within the constraints of privacy, Cortana (and Siri) are embedded in your computing environment—which for many people is in their face all day long.

The way Echo (and Google Home) work is to operate remotely and provide services (or Echo “skills”) via IoT, and that’s noted for not being particularly secure.

And so, while the Amazon Echo and Echo Dot get a lot of attention, it’s primarily because they have the virtue of having a “face,” not being tied to a computer and exemplified by simple understandable features that are easily advertised. But, after all, they come from a company that doesn’t have Apple’s and Microsoft’s OS and computer expertise. The choice is made for Amazon.

In the long run, I think there will be a small and stable market for these table-top AIs, but I like the way Apple and Microsoft think about the problem. With many hundreds of millions of Windows and iOS devices out there, the modern AI agent is going to manifest itself best in our mobile life. The numbers already prove it.

Of course, when our family robots in 2022 start to follow us around, like puppies, all that could change.

Next page: The news debris for the week of March 6th. The future of the Mac.

6 thoughts on “Should Our AI Agents Be Always With Us? Or Sit On a Table? Siri?

  • One interesting observation:
    Siri works fine for me normally. However if I have my VPN on it won’t connect. Neither will Dictation.
    A bit of a security weakness, having to turn off VPN in order to use the feature and then having to remember to turn it on again.

  • John:

    To answer what I think is your rhetorical but relevant question, ‘Should our AI agents be always with us?’, let me begin with, ‘Yes’ and add, ‘Where else but with us would they be if they are to be useful in a changing environment?’. Implicit in that second statement is that the competitive advantage is granted to that AI that is present when you need it, which is wherever you are at the time. The reason that the iPhone has displaced more capable and feature-rich cameras is that the camera with the competitive advantage is the one that is with you when you need it. Natural selection favours the generalist that can thrive in the most climes and under the most wide-ranging conditions. That is the one that is most likely to proliferate beyond their original cradle and seize the most planetary real estate.

    Apart from this question of availability is the present imperative of security and user privacy. Given the far-reaching capacity of nation state actors and state sponsored intelligence gathering, to which no platform or device is entirely immune, the AI solution that is the most hardened and secure is the one that will best weather the storms of cyberattack and provide the most relative security. This is not unlike the old joke/proverb of two people out on the African savannah who spot a lion and one of them advises, ‘Run’ and the other replies, ‘You cannot outrun a lion’, and the first person responds, ‘I don’t have to outrun the lion; I only need to outrun you!’ An AI solution may not be able to withstand every assault, but if it is a higher reach than its competitors, then it may provide a relative advantage to its users. Apple’s solution, which does not entail user behavioural information being transmitted or stored centrally, may provide this advantage in the long run. Not unlike the tortoise vs the hare, while Siri may have slower pace in achieving Turing-level responsiveness than some of its competitors, if those competitors are more readily compromised, Siri is more likely to outcompete them in the long game – a game in which Apple remain invested.

    While we’re on the subject of AI, regarding the worry that AI will conduct a hostile takeover of all things human, or otherwise subjugate, enslave or annihilate homo sapiens…yawn. Let’s revisit this when the ‘I’ in AI becomes even remotely sentient, that is, characterised with aspiration, ambition and desire for self-betterment, let alone dominance; in other words, a real competitor for human hegemony. I’m with Michael Shermer on this one, and as I’ve argued before, this scenario rests on many assumptions about the quality and nature of that intelligence, no sign of which is remotely evident today. To borrow Andrew Ng’s example, human overpopulation of Mars poses a greater existential threat to human welfare today than does a malevolent AI.

    Daniel Eran Dilger, once again, provides a cogent and comprehensive argument as to why Apple have not invested the level of attention to the Mac Pro that many have clamoured for. I disagree with the argument that if SJ were still alive, the Mac would get more attention than it has of late. That argument appears to be based upon the observation of SJ’s attention to the Mac hardware lineup dating between one and two decades ago, ie pre-iOS. It is contradicted by that other oft-cited observation of SJ, namely his ability to lose interest in projects and drop products that he felt were not moving the company or the user base forward, not to mention his utter lack of sentimentality. Apple are not a charity, but a for-profit competitive concern, and in that field, an apex predator. They are trying to drive digital solutions, not preserve legacy solutions out of a misplaced sense of nostalgia or sentimentality. That requires preferential attention to their mobile platform, which as Dilger points out, is not only their primary profit-maker but drives innovative solutions for their Mac platform. More important is the big picture, namely that 21st Century solutions are increasingly distributed across devices and software on the front end and serviced by enormous computational resources, including in the form ofAI, at the backend. Those backend resources far exceed the computational power to which the vast majority of users would ever had access to for their most frequently used tasks at any point in prior history, and poses the greatest threat to investing separate time and attention to any single niche use case that is not so served, such as machines for rendering farms.

    And speaking of digital resources, IBM’s atom-sized magnet is a game changer, assuming it can be scaled to a consumer device.

  • Re: Apple Assistant:
    Desired : A touchscreen in the kitchen (mounted on wall, permanently connected, by wire or by WiFi, to power & to the internet) with these capabilities:
    A. Always available (when home’s modem is on) for commands and questions (using a name other than Siri, so it won’t confuse other iphones/portables). Possible name: “Butler”,
    B. Displays time and timer, weather, recipes (How many cloves/minutes?), etc, all at once,
    C. Able to also play audio or video or Skype simultaneous to the above (B) capabilities,
    D. Can connect to other devices within the home for intercom, telecom or HomeKit uses.

    Apple would make this device, whether Apple makes the screen or not (say just a box like Apple TV) for security and ease of use. One could add similar connected touchscreens in other rooms as well.

    Isn’t this doable now with current technology?

  • AI: Pocket or Table:
    When in doubt WDTDIST (What Did They Do In Star Trek)
    Their AI interface was their communicator. First it was a discrete Communicator. Then it was the little badge on their shirt. But their AI was always with them.

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