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Google Thinks You’re Ready to Converse with Computers

Google’s new virtual assistant will be the biggest test yet of the theory that people want to talk to software to get things done.

Google has done well out of its search box. As our collective dependence on computers and the Internet has grown, we have come to use it more and more—helping Google swell to its gigantic size.

But on Wednesday Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, said it was time to move on from the conventional search engine that his company was built on. He unveiled Google Assistant, an evolution of Google search designed to act like a virtual concierge.

If you search Google for “movies tonight” on your phone today, it will display the films in local theaters. With the Google Assistant you can have a short conversation to get that same information, learn about the suggested movies, and book the tickets. For example, you could ask for movies nearby and then add “I want to take the kids” to see only family-friendly suggestions. After perusing the options, you could ask “Is Jungle Book any good?” to hear a summary of reviews, and then book tickets by saying “I want four tickets to the 8:30 showing.”

At some point the Google Assistant will be launched in the company’s mobile search apps, installed on more than a billion smartphones. First it will appear in a new messaging app called Allo, coming from Google this summer. Later in the year it will also appear inside a new device called Google Home, a competitor for Amazon’s Echo speaker and its built-in virtual assistant, Alexa.

In some ways, Google Assistant is the company playing catch-up. Apple and Microsoft launched their Siri and Cortana assistants years ago. And Microsoft and Facebook have already announced plans to help companies build “chatbots”—virtual customer service agents that supposedly provide a better way to interact with companies and even to buy goods and services.

Google’s dominance in search and its considerable investment in artificial intelligence suggest that its chatbot could stand apart.

What little we have seen of the Google Assistant suggests it is more powerful and flexible than Siri, Cortana, or Alexa. It looks to be better at understanding different ways of phrasing the same thing and following the context of a conversation. A demo video in which a family used several Google Home devices suggested that the service can use the contents of your Gmail account to handle requests such as “Move my dinner reservation to 8 p.m.”

Yet even if Google Assistant is smarter than the competition, it won’t necessarily come to be as essential as Google’s search box.

Siri and Cortana have failed to live up to the hype about virtual assistants that attended their launches. Hard data is scarce, but it appears that many people use them only rarely and take advantage of only a handful of their possible functions. Companies are still scrambling to understand how to create compelling or useful bots using Facebook’s platform that launched in April.

The limited ability of software to understand language is a part of that, and Google can probably bring better technology to bear on that challenge than any other company can. But there is also the question of whether a conversation is an attractive or efficient way to get things done with computers. It can be argued that conventional mobile apps are more efficient for many tasks.

Google Assistant will be the biggest and best test yet of the theory that conversational interfaces as today’s technology can deliver them are actually something people want. If they are, it could be Google’s way of dominating the next decade of computing the way its search box has dominated the last.

(Read more: “Google Finally Launches a Siri Killer,” “How Google Plans to Solve Artificial Intelligence,” “Is the Chatbot Trend One Big Misunderstanding?”)

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