Apple, Microsoft, and Amazon have all pushed virtual assistant apps in recent years. They’ve encouraged consumers to ask Siri, Cortana, and Alexa for help with daily tasks and boasted of their conversational power.
Now Google is bringing forward its own version of that idea—and without pretending its app is a woman.
Sundar Pichai, Google’s CEO, introduced the prosaically named Google Assistant at the company’s annual developer conference in Mountain View, California, on Wednesday. He demonstrated features that suggest it could be much more powerful than its older competitors. And Pichai talked of Google Assistant as the future of the company, in what sounded like a pivot away from the conventional search interface.
“We are evolving search to be much more assistive,” said Pichai. “We want users to have a two-way ongoing dialogue with Google to help get things done in the real world. We think of this as building each user their own individual Google.”
The Google Assistant works something like a conversational version of the Google search box, and includes elements seen before in Google’s mobile search apps. But as well as just answering simple questions, it can carry out a simple dialogue to do things like order an Uber, or research movies showing nearby and then buy tickets.
Although it is not yet available, it will anchor two products launching later this year. One is a device called Google Home that's similar to Amazon’s Echo, home to the retailer’s Alexa assistant. As with the Echo, you can call out to a Google Home device from across the room to do things like control music or interact with some third-party services, such as Nest.
A demonstration of Google Home suggested it is tightly integrated with Google’s other services, and capable of recognizing different people in a household.
When a woman asked “Has my package shipped?” the device was able to tell her that it had, based on information in her Gmail. When her partner then asked about traffic on the way to the airport, the device replied that it was heavier than usual and that an alternative route had been sent to his phone.
The Google Assistant is also a central feature of Allo, a new mobile messaging app to be released sometime this year with similarities to Facebook’s WhatsApp.
The Google Assistant will offer help if it sees you’re having a conversation with contacts about certain topics, say going out for dinner. Anyone in the thread can direct questions at the assistant to have it present suggestions and book a table.
Allo also leans on Google’s machine-learning technology in other ways. For example, it will automatically compose suggested replies to incoming messages, based on what it has learned by analyzing your previous messages.
This feature even works for photos. Google’s algorithms can look at the photo a friend sent of her pet and suggest you respond with “What a cute Bernese Mountain Dog!”
Google may be able to bring some of those features to other messaging apps. Last week the company released a keyboard app for Apple devices that provides access to search anytime you are typing. The Google Assistant could be added, too.
Google says it announced Google Home and Allo ahead of their release to give other companies time to make their services available to the Google Assistant. It has not said when Google Home or Allo will be available.