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How Will.i.am's AI compares to Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa, and Google Assistant

JP Mangalindan
Chief Tech Correspondent
Grammy-winning rapper Will.i.am demonstrated a new voice assistant this week at the annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco.

Will.i.am, a Grammy-winning rapper, is bullish on artificial intelligence. He’s spent the lion’s share of the last six years focused on i.am+, a 300-person startup developing a voice-enabled assistant that could be smarter in some ways than efforts from Apple (AAPL), Amazon (AMZN), and Google (GOOG, GOOGL) when it eventually rolls out to iOS users.  

The 43-year-old Black Eyed Peas musician demonstrated the Omega voice assistant for the first time with co-founder Chandrasekar Rathakrishnan last week at Salesforce’s annual Dreamforce conference in San Francisco. He showed off the voice assistant’s ability to pull information from multiple smartphone apps, including music, news, and calendars.

“The Omega architecture allows you to do things for consumers that really relieves some of the pain points that we don’t really articulate because we’re just we’ve conformed to the pain points, and it’s normal now,” Will.i.am tells Yahoo Finance.   

In one naturally flowing conversation, users can ask Omega to instantly play a track by an artist, rattle off the latest news on that artist, and find out when they are performing next. They can also explore which restaurants sit near the concert venue, then book a dinner reservation by holding a live phone conversation with the restaurant.

The live demo wasn’t without the occasional hiccup — in one brief moment, Omega misunderstood the user’s instructions — but the demo ultimately showcased a promising piece of technology that illustrates how far voice assistants have come while highlighting some of the competition’s limitations.

How Omega stacks up

Based on the demonstration at Dreamforce, it seems Siri and Alexa can’t complete some tasks as well as Omega’s voice assistant.

To be clear, Google’s Voice Assistant recently made a big leap. In June, that Voice Assistant’s impressive demo demonstrated a knack for making reservations. But Omega goes one small step further: If the restaurant can’t accommodate a user at a certain time, the voice assistant will actually place the restaurant on hold and briefly call the user back for additional information to potentially make the booking happen. It’s not much more than what Google’s Voice Assistant is capable of, but it’s a nice touch given the unpredictability of human conversation.  

Meanwhile, Siri can’t retrieve the news as well as Omega can — and Alexa can’t book a restaurant reservation on your behalf at all (at least not yet).

“Alexa, I don’t wanna doo-doo on her sandwich or anything,” Will.i.am explains. “The work that they’re [Amazon] doing is great because it’s educating folks, and I’m just echoing the pain points people feel. I’m not saying anything about the product. I think what they’re doing is great, and thank the Lord, somebody is doing it in a way where you’re excited about voice. But we all feel those pain points. We all feel like, ‘Ugh,’ with the limitations of the systems, what they do and the obvious things you wished they did. And that’s what we’ve built.”

It’s easy for some of the tech press to write off Will.i.am, best known for his work with the Black Eyed Peas. Several of his earlier tech efforts haven’t gone over well, including the heavily-criticized Puls smartwatch in 2015 and a “smart cuff” called The Dial which was better received two years later but didn’t exactly fly off shelves. But with over $123 million in venture-backed capital from investors like Salesforce Ventures, his Los Angeles-based startup, i.am+, certainly has the financial wherewithal to experiment in tech.

The startup has also made some seemingly sensible moves, including the acquisition of Wink, which develops a smart home app that ties together different internet-connected devices in the home.

“I’m not worried about what people might think of my attempts and my failures,” Will.i.am says of the criticism. “I’m the kind of person that gets up, like what the f…? What did I trip on? All right, cool. Note to self: there is a rope on the rug, hop over it next time.”

It’s unclear how Omega will fare in a competitive market, but the musician and entrepreneur emphasizes i.am+ is all-in: The startup plans to eventually roll out a new version of its sold-out Bluetooth Buttons earbuds with the Omega voice assistant built-in.

But if anything, Will.i.am has proven that advancements in voice don’t always have to come from the tech giants.

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