05 Sep 2017

OK Google, let’s talk unions

One of the latest frontiers in technology is voice controlled smart assistants. Systems like Apple’s Siri, Google Now and Microsoft’s Cortana have been bringing voice controlled commands to mobiles, tablets and desktops over the last few years.

However, Amazon raised the stakes by launching the Amazon Echo, a standalone hub designed to allow you to manage your digital life through voice alone. Google have since launched their own voice controlled smart assistant, ‘Google Home’, and Apple have announced that their own offering, the Apple HomePod, will be launched later this year.

These voice activation systems allow users to request information, perform tasks and control their Internet of Things (IoT) devices without having to press anything. For example, you can request what you have in your diary for the day, play music and radio channels on command, and control the temperature in your home with a compatible smart thermostat.

Google Home was launched in the US last year, but it has only just become available in the UK. Each competing device has different strengths and weaknesses, but I’ve opted for Google’s offering for my office. The vision is that, in the future, many people will use these devices for everyday tasks instead of their desktops or mobile devices.

So, I thought I’d see how Google Home deals with union-related questions. What will the increasing number of users be hearing when they ask their ‘smart assistant’ about unions? Below are a number of union related questions and the responses from Google Home.

OK Google, what’s a trade union?

“An organised association of workers in a trade, group of trades, or profession, formed to protect and further their rights and interests.”

Hey Google, should I join a trade union?

“Unions are all about supporting their members at work. Those involved in the union movement believe that all aspects of working life should be the subject of discussion and agreement between employers and employees who are organised together under the protection of a trade union.”

The reply I get is taken from the Unite site. It seems that building content addressing the ‘Why should people join a trade union?’ question pays off for Unite, and they control the message ahead of others.

OK Google, I want to join a trade union?

"On the website gov.uk, they say ‘Find a union to join. If there's a union at work, you can ask the trade union representative ('rep') about joining. Their contact details may be in your company handbook, intranet site or on the union noticeboard. The union rep will tell you if you're eligible to join and give you a membership form to fill in."

So far, Google Home has actually done a decent job of answering some of the basic questions about unions. It’s using the power of Google Search Engine to get these answers, and so sites that perform well in search and are search engine optimised, such as Unite in the example above, influence the message. I wanted to dig a bit deeper with some more detailed questions, so I asked some sector-specific questions.

OK Google, what are the public sector trade unions?

“Trade Unions frequently mentioned on the web include Public Sector Trade Union, Unison, Prospect and others”

Hey Google, which trade unions are there for professionals?

“Trade Unions frequently mentioned on the web include Prospect, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, Chartered Society of Physiotherapy and others.”

OK Google, tell me about the teachers unions

“Trade Unions frequently mentioned on the web include National Union of Teachers, Association of Teachers and Lecturers, National Association of Head Teachers and others”

Next, I thought I’d try some more specific questions.

Hey Google, who is the General Secretary of the TUC?

“Here is a summary from the website en.wikipedia.org: Frances Lorraine O'Grady is the General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress (TUC)”

Hey Google, what is the biggest trade union in the UK?

“Here’s a summary from the website tuc.org.uk. U: UNISON. Trade union representing full-time and part-time staff who provide public services in both the public and private sectors, USDAW, UCAC, UCU, Unite and URTU."

Not a great answer here. It does mention both Unite and UNISON, but is seems to get fixated on unions starting with u.

The ‘goose eggs’ – questions Google Home can’t answer yet

If you’re reading this, you may think Google Home is hitting a pretty good response rate on these questions. However, there have been quite a lot of misses as I’ve tried out various questions. Here are some notable ones:

OK Google, what the minimum wage per hour?

“Sorry, I’m not sure how to help with that yet”

OK Google, how many union members are there in the UK?

“Sorry, I’m not sure how to help with that yet, but I’m always learning”

OK Google, how much does it cost to join UNISON?

“I’m afraid I don’t know how to help with that”

OK Google, how much does it cost to join USDAW?

“I’m sorry, I don’t understand”

It’s interesting to see how much Google Home can and can’t do yet. Given it’s only been out in the UK for a couple of months, it’s not done a bad job of answering many of these questions.

Google does have the advantage of being able to use its search engine to power some answers I haven't tried the Amazon Echo, so I don’t know how it performs on these questions, but I suspect it won’t do as well. This experiment highlights the growing importance of having web content that addresses frequently asked questions and good search engine optimisation.

Unite manages to influence debate by getting their content for the ‘should I join a trade union’ ranked above anyone else. This also highlights how the semantic web will influence the future. Websites are increasingly including semantic web mark-up, such as the schema.org standard, to help systems such as Google pick up information such as names, descriptions and prices (think of the union subscription questions).

As the popularity of home smart assistants grow, sites that adopt semantic web standards are likely to be more ‘vocal’ that those who do not.


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