Home is Google’s voice controlled speaker – one way in which you can interact with Assistant, the new artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant. Photograph: Google Samuel Gibbs
Tuesday 4 October 2016 18.22 BST Last modified on Tuesday 4 October 2016 18.53 BST
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Google has launched a revamped artificially intelligent personal assistant that aims to be theGoogle people need wherever they are, be it on their smartphone or in the home through a new voice-enabled speaker.
On the face of it, Assistant appears to be everything Google was already doing through its Now personal assistant on the phone, voice search on the web and information services built into its email, calendar and messenger products. But Google Assistant takes it one step further with a conversational interface that adapts to when, where and how you use it.
In the home it can speak to you. Ask it questions and it will respond in kind – a voice conversation with a machine that learns about you and responds with your personal information, not just some generic searches pulled from the web. On the phone, it replaces Google’s voice search, so you can set reminders, alarms, activate functions and pull information through voice or text.
Gummi Hafsteinsson, product management director on the Assistant engineering team said: “It’s a natural progression of what Google’s been doing for years. Search has always been about finding things, first with a text box you type into, then natural language queries.
“So now we’re moving from a box you type into and get results, to more of a conversation with Google, so we can help answer questions and get things done, to help people throughout the day.”
The bottom of the Google Home speaker comes in several different colours, while multi-room audio is built right in. Photograph: Google Google is not alone in its quest to develop AI capable of being conversational, which seen as the next big thing in tech. Apple’s Siri was one of the first examples, but while simple voice control works well, the company has struggled to significantly improve its voice-activated assistant, leaving users frustrated. Amazon’s Alexa, which recently launched in the UK on theAmazon Echo speaker, represents Google’s biggest challenge in this space, capable of conversational responses that are almost human-like.
But Google’s advantage is that it has access to more information and voice data than anyone else though 18 years of searches and the advanced machine learning and artificial intelligence that powers it.
“Conversation is a natural and fast way to get things done, getting to the point of what you need to accomplish as fast as possible. It’s a universal interface of which you can apply the principles and ideas and functionalities to so many different places,” said Hafsteinsson. “It means you can have a single conversation with Assistant regardless of what device you use. From the user’s point of view, I shouldn’t have to think about how I talk to Assistant, whether you talk to it on a phone or through Home.”
In the UK, Assistant will be present on Google’s new smartphones and within the Allo app for Android and iOS, but US users will also be able to buy a small voice-enabled speaker called Google Home.
Hafsteinsson said: “Google Home is a home helper that’s connected to your home, so you can turn on the lights, play music, set timers and other home productivity apps, and answer any and all questions you might have.”
Google Assistant on the Google Pixel phone. Photograph: Google Like Amazon’s Echo, it will be able to control smart home devices, play music and pull information from the web. But if a user is saturated within Google’s ecosystem, plugged into the company’s Gmail, calendar, messaging, contacts, photos, maps and documents, it will be able to act as a true personal assistant, providing overviews of your day, information when you need it and other useful integrations.
It also has third-party integrations – it works with most major music streaming services out of the box – and will have a developer programme launching later this year, allowing services to speak through Assistant directly to the user. For instance, if someone wants to call a cab, a taxi service such as Uber can jump into the conversation to ask specifics through Assistant before disappearing again, leaving Google to carry on the conversation once the cab is booked.
Hafsteinsson said: “We’ve added a little bit of personality, so if you say ‘hi’ to it, it asks how you are, or if you say ‘good morning’ to Assistant, it will respond with a brief overview of your day, building a relationship between user and Assistant in a natural way.”
Google Assistant represents a quick and easy way to access a wealth of features, but discovery may be difficult. Its adoption outside the home also hangs on how useful it can be without having to talk to it. There is a clear divide between the US and Europeans, particularly in the UK, over users’ comfort in talking out loud to an inanimate object. But in the home there is a clearer use case.
For Google, Assistant, Home and its new Pixel smartphones are about being with the user in every step of their day.
Hafsteinsson said: “The long-term vision is for the Assistant to be available wherever you need it, not just on your phone. In your home, your car, wherever. For now, it’s just the new phone from Google and the Home [device].”
Google Home costs $129 in the US and will come with a six-month YouTube Red free-trial. Pre-orders start on 4 October and will be available in stores from 4 November. Google said Home will launch in the UK next year.