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Google dominated headlines this past week when it unveiled its new suite of hardware products, notably the Pixel smartphone and Google Home speaker, all of which were built in-house. In so doing, Google announced very publicly that it was taking aim at Apple’s iPhone and Amazon’s Echo.
The software that ties its products together, and what Google believes will give it an edge over its stiff competition, is Google Assistant, a conversational AI chatbot and personal assistant that responds to spoken and written queries.
“We’re moving from a mobile first to an AI-first world,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai boldly proclaimed at his presentation this past Tuesday. Google clearly envisions integrating Google Assistant as a key feature in Android products in order to compete with the likes of Siri and Alexa, not to mention IBM’s Watson and Samsung’s recently acquired Viv. At a time when many major tech titans are shoring up their AI capabilities, how does Google Assistant hold up?
According to early reports, what sets Google Assistant apart is its contextual awareness and ability to carry on conversations using it. As the BBC reports, when asked who the current UK prime minister is, Google Assistant, Alexa, and Siri are all able to correctly answer, “Theresa May.”
Google’s AI distinguishes itself when asked the follow-up question, “how old is she?” While Alexa and Siri struggle to identify the “she” referred to in the question, Google Assistant replies without breaking a sweat, “Theresa May is 60 years old.” This ability to carry on a back-and-forth is a crucial one whose value can’t be overstated and may, in the end, convince users that Google Assistant will prove to be a more adept personal assistant than its competitors.
Rather than being forced to memorize complex or nuanced commands, users can simply carry on naturalistic conversations, feeding Google’s AI chatbot relevant information piecemeal. Instead of asking Google Assistant to come up with a list of movies suitable for your children aged 6-10 played by theaters in your area, you can simply ask it what movies the local theater is playing and follow up by noting, “by the way, I’m bringing my kids.”
Beyond this, Google has a vast hoard of data and machine learning expertise that may power greater leaps in its AI capabilities and will surely factor into Google Assistant in the coming years. After, AI learns through data and experience.
“Today, we have an understanding of 1 billion entities: people, places, and things, and the relationships of them in the real world,” said Pichai at the presentation. “We can do things which we never thought we could do before.”
Integrated into Google Home products, the Pixel smartphone, and Allo, Google Assistant will be able to do everything from setting your dinner reservations, to telling you the weather, to playing your favorite playlist and turning off the lights. Google has also announced plans to open up its AI assistant to third-party developers and integrate it with Uber, Spotify, CNN, and Samsung’s SmartThings later on down the line, which will further expand the range of services it can provide to people in everyday situations.
If Google pulls this off, it will reinforce the brand reputation it’s built for being the entity people turn to when they have questions and problems (i.e. Have a question? Google it). This is the “AI-first world” Pichai envisions, where our problems and questions are mediated by Google Assistant rather than the touchpads of our mobile phones.
Of course, all the major AI players are on the same page in that regard. Apple, Amazon, and Google would all love to have their personal assistants become integral parts of our day to day lives. The question is whether Apple is poised to compete with Google and provide a similar experience.
Siri may be the most prominent and recognizable virtual assistant, but she has some catching up to do in the natural conversation department. Moreover, while Apple may have just recently integrated Siri into its Mac desktops with the release of macOS Sierra, where is the smart speaker, the suite of smart home products, and the smart car to go with it?
The big advantages Google Assistant has over Siri are that it can carry on a conversation and turn off the lights. In time, it will be able to do much more. Of course, the bigwigs at Cupertino are well aware of this and have most certainly ordered their AI engineers to cook something up. It’s a matter of waiting to see what they’ve been up to.