The Software Society

How digital technology is changing our culture and economy

Google personal assistant adds features and will be ubiquitous, despite being anonymous

Google’s search function has clearly evolved into a general personal assistant that one can address by voice, available on Android devices and on any device through the Chrome browser. On their web site, under “Use your voice on Android,” Google provides a long list of what you can tell the search engine to do, with most functionality supported in English, French, German, Italian, Japanese, Korean, Russian, Spanish, and Brazilian Portuguese. Among other functions that are not search, you can take a photo, set reminders, send a text message (“Text Steve that I’m running 5 minutes late”), send an email (dictating the message subject and content), play music by song or artist, identify a song, get sports scores, check out a restaurant menu, plan a trip, and have the assistant calculate a tip for you. An enhancement to its restaurant and hotel search in April allows you to tap the mic on your Android phone, for example, and say “Show me some restaurants in downtown Austin.” If you see a choice you like in the resulting list, you can say, “OK Google, call The Baker Grill.”

Google’s personal assistant functionality will compete directly with Apple’s Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, and Nuance Communications’ Dragon (and the last’s offspring, such as Samsung’s S-Voice). What should we call the Google assistant to distinguish its broad functionality from the more limited web search by voice? In some environments, you can wake up the Google assistant by saying “OK, Google,” and in others, “OK, Google Now.” The press often refers to “Google Now” as the personal assistant, despite the fact that the Google web site describes Now as only the proactive notifications function (“The right information at the right time”), not even including active search. And “Google” doesn’t clearly distinguish the personal assistant functionality from other uses of the word. Google has in the past blogged that personal assistants are just an extension of search, and there is no distinction necessary, but there is value to making it clear that the company is offering full personal assistant functionality.

An article at the Android Police blog site reports rumors that the “OK Google” function will become available in many more places. They say that the capability is being referred to as “OK Google everywhere.” The Software Society blog called this one-assistant-across-devices capability a “ubiquitous personal assistant.” It’s an important trend, and one Apple is rumored will join by making Siri available in the next release of the Macintosh OS.

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