Better Living Through Big Data

Google Assistant offers a glimpse at the future of search

Dean Evans Technology Writer Twitter

On October 4, Google launched two new Pixel smartphones, a mobile VR ‘Daydream View’ headset, the Google Home wireless speaker and a Wi-Fi router. But it wasn’t the hardware that truly impressed. It was the Google Assistant AI software that underpinned it.

The Google Assistant is the next iteration of Google Now and it joins Microsoft’s Cortana, Amazon’s Alexa and Apple’s Siri in promising to simplify search and help you to complete everyday tasks using conversational speech.

In the new Google Home wireless speaker, for example, Google Assistant will help you enjoy your favourite music, get answers from Google, manage tasks and control compatible smarthome devices. So you can ask it to play your favourite Spotify playlist; tell it turn on your Philips Hue lights; or to display holiday photos on your TV via a Chromecast.

Google Home
Google Home is an Amazon Echo-style wireless speaker with Google Assistant built in.

Functionality like this is no small achievement, the result of recent advances in machine learning, natural language processing, image recognition and real-time text translation.

Read: Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning: How Computers Learn

Google’s mission is still to organise the world’s information. But with Google Assistant, it can not only leverage that information, but customise it, creating a “personal Google” that’s “always ready to help.”

Google Assistant and its rivals represent a new and more conversational way to search the web. Rather than simply asking a query and getting a list of relevant links, these digital assistants have the smarts to deliver more specific, useful answers.

“Search historically used to be queries,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai told Forbes. “Ten years ago, we could point you to a link and be done with it. Today, to help you get things done, if we want to get you movie tickets or maybe a restaurant reservation you have to complete that step further. The transition to a conversational assistant is harder from a computer science standpoint. In every dimension, it’s more ambitious.”

Google Assistant
The Google Assistant AI will ultimately be able to fulfill conversational requests, like booking a table for dinner.

It’s also going to take time. Today, asking Google’s Assistant (accessible via the Allo app) the question: “When is the next bus into Bristol?” returns a link to the bus operator’s website. Not exactly a smart response. But by opening up Google Assistant to partners and other apps going forward, the AI should ultimately be able to pull out relevant bus times (based on time and your location) to give you a better answer.

Google Assistant is a peek at the future of search, one where tight integration with partner services will let the AI fulfil more complex requests. At the October 4 event, for example, Google’s Scott Huffman made a voice request for an Uber. The Google Assistant passed him across to an Uber assistant, which then asked ‘where are you headed?’ and ‘would you like an UberX?’ before completing the booking.

This is what digital assistants are capable of and with Google Assistant set to roll out across multiple devices — smartwatches, phones, Home and even cars (via Android Auto) — AI-powered search will be available whenever and wherever you need it.

Google Pixel with Google Assistant
Google Assistant is also baked into the new Google Pixel smartphones, launched October 4.

Crucially, AI assistants will be able to mine your search history, app usage, email accounts, calendars and map location to track your preferences and behaviour patterns. Armed with this info, they should have the capacity to anticipate your needs.

“A big part of the conversational assistant is that,” Google’s Pichai said in the Forbes interview. “Sometimes the assistant tells you something before you ask. If I can talk about an aspirational example, I think it would be good for the assistant to say, ‘Mother’s Day is coming up, and here are some things.’ You haven’t asked it yet. Think of it as a two-way conversation; sometimes the assistant will be telling you something before you ask it.”

That is the future of search.

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