Google Now can automatically notify a user about the weather, traffic, upcoming appointments, flights, nearby businesses such as restaurants and cafés, sports results, public transit and travel information, and movie show times. It’s also smart enough to gauge that some things matter more than others. Unusually bad traffic on your commuting route, for example, warrants an audible notification, while events just appear on the screen the next time you check your phone.
Like many Google products—and Siri, too—Google Now is built on top of machine learning, a branch of AI concerned with using large amounts of data to inform decisions. Also like other Google products, Google Now gets better as the company collects more data and refines its algorithms.
Perhaps one of Google Now’s smartest features is the way it lets the user sidestep the result of that machine learning if it doesn’t work, in the process giving feedback that could be used to improve it. A spoken question doesn’t yield just a card showing the answer and it being read aloud, but also the familiar readable list of blue search results, which can be invaluable if your query was misunderstood. You can also dismiss an information card offered by Google Now, after which you get the option to ban it forever, or tune how often it appears with a few taps.
Kryzstof Gajos, an assistant professor at Harvard who researches how to create intelligent, interactive software systems, says that Google has negotiated a problem that has crippled other attempts to create smarter software. “People take seconds saved for granted but perceive even two seconds of delay as negative,” he says. “It has a serious cost unless you have designed in an alternative.” It’s best of all if that alternative is something familiar and quick to use, such as Google’s search results, he says.
Google Now could become even smarter by drawing on more sources of information, says Gajos. “Location seems to be the best source they have now,” he says, noting that Apple is making use of location too, by automatically presenting loyalty cards or boarding passes through the “Passbook” app when a person goes somewhere these could be used. Gajos adds that academic research into intelligent software systems has shown that estimates of emotional state can be useful. “Inferring frustration or distraction can be very valuable to an adaptive system,” he says, since it can avoid causing annoyance.
No one is likely to know better than Barra the real direction Google will take in its effort to make every Android super-smart. But he’s not giving much away, beyond saying that the number of things the app can automatically offer will increase fast. One thing for sure is that Google Now won’t be losing its anonymity and getting a Siri-style personality anytime soon, despite the fact that some users have warmed to Apple’s virtual assistant (see “Social Intelligence”).
“It’s a design choice, and there was certainly some internal debate on this,” says Barra. “Giving it a specific personality would violate Google’s relationship with some people in a certain way. It can be any of many different personalities, depending on who you are.”