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Do we need shortcuts when it comes to voicebots?

That’s a good question to ask now that Google provides a way to create shortcuts for the Google Home speaker and the Assistant voicebot. With a shortcut, you can type a word or a phrase that triggers a longer action. For example, you can create a command for turning off the lights in your home when you say the word “lights” to the bot. I decided to test it this weekend, and I realized there are quite a few problems with how it all works and why you would even use it.

In some ways, you’d think a truncated command makes sense. I set up a dozen of them on Friday heading into the weekend. I created one called “ben” that triggers Google Play Music and plays Ben Howard songs. Another one, which required some configuration with a Google Chromecast I had stuffed into a drawer long ago, plays puppy videos on YouTube when I say “puppies” to the bot. I set up several related to reminders, trivia questions, and even a light I use for security purposes, connected through the Philips Hue system in my house.

That night, it was handy to say “OK, Google” then “ben” and hear songs from one of my favorite artists on the Home speaker. It means, in theory, that I can speak less and have more utility and functionality with less effort. The theory proved wrong, however.

My problem was that by Saturday I had totally forgotten which commands I had created. I kept having to go back into the Home app on my iPhone and scan through my shortcuts. I had to recall which specific words and phrases I had created. One command that should have played the band “alt-j” when I say “alt-j” didn’t work for some reason. Another, for the Hue light, worked when I was next to the speaker and said “OK, Google” and then “lights” but didn’t work from across the room. And what was the point if I had to get up and walk to the kitchen to turn on the lights by voice? (This is a problem easily solved by purchasing more speakers.)

Worse, I knew the commands themselves were a bit useless. How many times was I really going to listen to Ben Howard? He’s an awesome guitar player and songwriter, but would I really create voice commands for dozens of artists when I can pick from thousands and thousands?

Part of the reason voicebots are so useful is that we can be incredibly random. A bot is like a fill-in adviser, a friend, a colleague, an aficionado. I don’t want the Google Home speaker to respond to single word commands. I want it to respond to my randomness.

The dumbest shortcut is related to ambient music. You can create one that plays “chill” music at night by creating a command and saying “chill” to the bot. Or you can just tell the voicebot to play chill music. It might be splitting hairs to criticize Google for creating these shortcuts, but it’s one of those features that seems useful and helpful at first until you realize it’s actually easier to use the bot the way it was intended — to start a dialog and expand on it as the need arises.

I ended up turning off most of the shortcuts. I realized by Sunday that I don’t want to use them, and the goal is to speak more to the bot, not less. I want to get more detailed. In the spur of the moment, I want to say “play my favorite three songs by Ben Howard then stop,” but on another occasion I might say “play the really old stuff by Ben Howard” to fit the mood.

And, generally speaking, I prefer if the Assistant learns what I like to do and doesn’t require that I create a shortcut for repetitive tasks. If I always say “lights” at night, don’t bother giving me a shortcut. Learn from me and offer to turn them off. Almost every shortcut I used ended up being something I’d like the bot to learn on its own and do autonomously.

Except, of course, for the videos that shows puppies. My kids loved that one.

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