Rarely a week goes by without news of a new feature for AI assistants like Alexa, Bixby, or Siri. It’s a fast-moving competition between tech giants like Amazon, Samsung, and Apple, but despite billions of investment in AI and everyone from Softbank to Will.I.Am entering this space, sometimes critical or easily accomplishable tasks for the uberbots aren’t immediately addressed.
For example, for a long time, Google Home and Alexa-enabled devices were unable to add events to popular calendar services, and Alexa has only been able to create reminders since June. But one low-hanging piece of fruit yet to be plucked is the ability to tell users about when the next bus or train is due to arrive.
Today both of the popular assistants can send directions to your phone and help you get virtually anywhere on the planet, but neither can tell you a quick answer about the schedule of a bus or train line near your home that you ride everyday.
Since the answer to the question “When does the next 5 bus inbound arrive?” requires no visuals or a response that’s longer than two words, this use case seems like an ideal fit for the voice interface.
To be clear, both Alexa and Google Assistant today have voice apps from third-party developers that serve up bus or train times in major cities around the world like London, San Francisco, and New York, but access to these apps is sparse today, requires a user to search through an app directory, remember the name of the app, or deal with a series of different conversational experiences.
Fortunately, this may be getting easier. Last week, Google Assistant introduced Implicit Discovery, a feature that will turn the AI assistant into a recommendation engine for voice apps, so anytime a person says “I need a ride” or “I need to order food for delivery,” you may receive some particular suggestions. Alexa is already able to make some skills recommendations.
That means it may someday be possible to say “Hey Google, I need to catch the bus” and you will be connected to an app that can answer that question — but that’s not the way to go. If people are required to say “I need to catch the bus,” pick a recommended app, then chat with the app to get an answer, then few may turn to their AI assistant for the answer to this question. They’ll just grab their smartphone and search an appropriate app instead.
Bus and train times should be a native, not third-party, feature for all AI assistants. Given the decline in word error rates for voice computing and the increase in adoption of AI assistants across hundreds of millions of devices, doing so could make a lot of people’s lives easier, and even reduce climate change.
I know that I’ll need this information between 7 and 9 a.m. every day, so this could feasibly be a programmable alert that speaks up every time I have five minutes before a 5R bus arrives.
If you’re particularly awesome with being on time, Alexa users could someday use Routines to schedule bus and train time alerts to speak up at a certain time each day. If you’re particularly awful at being on time, Routines can be scheduled to share the next bus time every 10 minutes or so every morning.
As I’ve written in the past, I don’t really want an all-knowing AI assistant that can do all things so much as I want an assistant that can help me do the 20 things I have to accomplish daily in an efficient, frictionless way. Catching the bus is one of my 20 things, and the same is true for the millions of Americans who take 35 million trips on public transportation every weekday, according to the American Public Transportation Association.
Public ridership is up 34 percent since 1995, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.
We know that today more people live in cities than any other time in human history, a trend only forecast to continue, and before autonomous vehicles are able to ferry us everywhere we want to go while you take a nap, the bus and train are there and growing in usage.
Last year public transportation agencies in cities like Dallas and Los Angeles began to work with ride-sharing apps like Lyft and Uber to exchange data in hopes of resolving the last-mile challenge. In public transportation, “last mile” signifies the short distance the average person lives from a bus stop in a metropolitan area. Solving the last-mile problem could help more people choose the bus or train over a car. In one year, one person who takes the bus instead of driving saves 4,800 pounds of carbon emission from entering the atmosphere, according to the APTA.
Sharing data between these government agencies and businesses could help more people get to where they need to go, but so too can incorporating bus and train times into the voice interface.
Imagine asking your assistant for the bus time, then, based on previously shown preference or preset configuration of your assistant, the train time is followed up with “Would you like a ride from Lyft to the train station?” That’s easier to do in the morning than trying to accomplish this with your smartphone.
Bus and train times aren’t as sexy as controlling your movies and music with your voice, but making them available through Alexa, Google Assistant, and other AI assistants could help more people ditch their cars, save money, reduce carbon emissions, and just make life easier.