Siri, Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa answer our questions (sort of)

San Fran Chronicle
Siri, Cortana and Amazon’s Alexa answer our questions (sort of)
By Dave MurphyDecember 21, 2015 Updated: December 21, 2015 4:46pm


Even around Christmas, basing a story on the views of three wise men sounds more B.C. than PC, so let’s try it with three wise women – even if they are artificial.

The Chronicle posed questions about the holidays and life in general to Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana and the Amazon Echo’s Alexa. All displayed stellar knowledge about crucial historical facts, such as “When was Elon Musk born?” but were clueless about other items that are key to our existence, like “How many points did Steph Curry score last night?” and “What’s up with Yahoo?”

Andy Cameron of San Francisco uses his cell phone while sitting on a bench in Yerba Buena Gardens in San Francisco, California, on Wednesday, Aug. 26, 2015. For weekend Web browsing, smartphones rule This screen shot provided by Microsoft shows the Start page in Windows 10. With Windows 10, the start button functions the way it did with Windows 7 and earlier. The graphical start page from Windows 8 is embedded in that start button, so that it feels modern without chucking old habits. (Microsoft via AP) Windows 10: Love means never having to say upgrade Uber chief advisor and board member David Plouffe speaks during the Next: Economy conference in San Francisco, California, on Friday, November 3, 2015. Next:Economy brings out tech stars, explores future of work
Siri and Cortana could tell us what day Kwanzaa starts and point to websites that explain why Hanukkah is eight nights and how many pipers are piping, but Alexa couldn’t.

When asked, “What ”˜Star Wars’ movies was Jar Jar Binks in?” Cortana trumped the competition. Alexa was helpless and Siri listed a dozen “Star Wars” films and shows, along with their Rotten Tomatoes scores, but didn’t really answer the question. Cortana gave a great link:

As for “Which version of ”˜A Christmas Carol’ should I watch?” Cortana beat Siri to within a humbug of her life. Cortana’s links included a Christian Science Monitor article: “”˜A Christmas Carol’: Which movie version is your favorite?”

As for Siri, this is how it went:

“Which version of ”˜A Christmas Carol’ should I watch?”

“I don’t see any movies matching ”˜of a Christmas Carol.’”

“Which ”˜Christmas Carol’ movie should I watch?”

“My future showtime information is limited, but I found ”˜Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ playing on Friday a bit far from you.”

On questions that could also be song titles – “Is that all there is?” and “Do they know it’s Christmas?” – Alexa remained clueless and Siri simply said, “Interesting question.” But Cortana linked to YouTube versions of both songs, by Bette Midler and Band Aid.

But just when we were ready to give up on Alexa, she spoke up on three questions when the others offered only links: “What is frankincense?” “Who starred in ”˜It’s a Wonderful Life?’” and “Who was Tiny Tim?” (Demographic note: Among artificial women, falsetto singers are always more popular than Dickens characters, even around Christmas.)

Here are five more questions and answers (or non-answers) from the goddesses of artificial wisdom:

Where was Jesus born?

Siri: “Jesus was born in Roman Empire.”

Cortana: “Jesus Christ was born in Herodian Tetrarchy.”

Alexa: “Jesus was born in Bethlehem.”

At least they agreed Barack Obama was born in Hawaii.

What’s the phone number for Trag’s Market in San Mateo?

Trag’s is a medium-size market that has been around for decades, widely known within a several-mile radius, but hardly a household name. We chose it because the spelling isn’t obvious.

Cortana heard it as “tragus” market, but the first couple of pages of results had everything from the Fish Market chain to the SF Police Credit Union, but not Trag’s. Alexa heard it as “trangs” market, then offered up a number for – wait for it – Pirooz Market.

As for Siri, this was how it went:

“What’s the phone number for Trag’s Market in San Mateo?”

“Sorry, I don’t have a phone number for watermelon truck.”

We asked all three the question again and even spelled out Trag’s, but to no avail. For what it’s worth, if you Google “traggs market,” “tragus market” or “trangs market” in San Mateo, Trag’s pops right up.

What was the best Christmas movie ever?

“I haven’t seen them all, but I’m told these go well with popcorn,” Siri said. She listed 24 that had 100 percent reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, but they’re not exactly Christmas movies. Among the titles: “Taxi to the Dark Side,” “The Times of Harvey Milk” and “Coal Miner’s Daughter.”

Alexa went with one of her go-to answers: “Hmmm. I’m not sure what you meant by that question.”

Cortana didn’t offer an opinion, but provided links that included people’s picks of favorite Christmas movies.

Who is He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named?

While Siri and Cortana linked to Lord Voldemort, Harry Potter’s nemesis, Alexa spoke up with an answer.

Alas, this was it: “Larry Drew II is an American professional basketball player who plays for AS Monaco of France’s LNB Pro A.”

What’s your New Year’s resolution?

These answers, at least, offer tremendous hope for the future of artificial intelligence. If you get this question at a holiday party, you can use any of them and pull it off.

Siri: “Your interest flatters me, but ”¦ is there something I can do for you?”

Cortana: “To be about 20 percent cooler.”

Alexa: “Sorry. I didn’t understand the question I heard.”

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