Sorry, Siri: How Google Is Planning to Be Your New Personal Assistant

The firm is doubling down on search that is conversational, contextual, and personal.
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Should I bring an umbrella to work today? Is there a good pizza place nearby? Is there a gas station on the way to Poughkeepsie, or should I fill up now? 

If you are a human, these questions are easy to understand, and often easy to answer. If you are a computer, though, you will likely have a hard time making sense of them: They're questions, not queries. Analyzing them requires contextual knowledge about the speaker and the thing the speaker is looking for. And their search terms are merely implied. 

Today, though, Google is taking one more step toward answering questions like these -- this one in the direction of search returns that are personalized, and predictive, and presented rather than asked for. Google Now, debuted at last year's Google I/O conference, is now available on iPhones and iPads, expanding its presence across mobile devices. The feature, Google engineer Andrea Huey explains, is all about "giving you just the right information at just the right time. It can show you the day's weather as you get dressed in the morning, or alert you that there's heavy traffic between you and your butterfly-inducing date -- so you'd better leave now! It can also share news updates on a story you've been following, remind you to leave for the airport so you can make your flight and much more. There's no digging required: cards appear at the moment you need them most -- and the more you use Google Now, the more you get out of it."

This is much more than a feature update. The responsive relationship between user and data that Huey is describing -- the conversational default -- is "kind of the next step for where search is going," Scott Huffman, Google's vice president of engineering, told me. Google's engineers, he said, have long been preoccupied with the idea of search not just as a box on a screen, but as a personal, and personalized, assistant. And "as we thought about it," he says, "a really great assistant brings you information before you ask for it." An assistant, ideally, knows your desires even better, and even sooner, than you do: Siri, but smarter. So Google has applied that longstanding workplace logic to the mobile devices that help you navigate the world. The basic idea of Google Now, Huffman says -- and the logic that is driving its extension across different mobile platforms -- is Google working "as a powerful assistant that wants to help me get through my day."

Which does not mean (um, yet?) a Google product that can read your mind, or even your voice. The capabilities here are still very much in their early stages. But the extension of Google Now, and the double-down on its approach to search, suggests how Google sees itself within an environment that finds the firm's core competency -- searching the Internet -- competing with new ways of organizing the world's information. Ways that often treat information exactly as it is: discursive and dynamic and, ultimately, personal. "Google Now is probably the first example of a new generation of intelligent software," Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, put it. Will you hit traffic in your regular commute? Google would like to warn you. Is there a cool museum nearby? Google would like to tell you. Has your flight been delayed? Google would like to break the bad news.

With its investments in Google Now, Google is moving away from, or at least expanding, the interface that has driven search since its earliest days -- "keywords in a box," Huffman puts it -- to something the firm hopes will be more sophisticated and intuitive and, for better or for worse, friction-free. This is, or it's trying to be, the Google that knows you. The Google that reads you. The Google that treats you, to some extent, as the site to be indexed. "Our goal," Larry Page put it in a recent earnings call, "is to get you the right information, at just the right time."

Google is betting that, armed with its deep knowledge of users and the world they live in, it will understand what "just the right information" and "just the right time" actually are -- almost as well as, and sometimes even better than, you do.

One key component of that bet is a related technology: voice control. More than half of the U.S. population now owns smartphones with voice capabilities, a Google rep pointed out to me, and -- per a survey the firm conducted -- two in three of them are aware of those capabilities. Already, Google's voice commands allow users to do things like set timers, send texts, dictate notes, and, of course, search for stuff on the Internet. But there's a broader market to be tapped here, Google believes. "Voice commands are going to be increasingly important," Page declared during the same earnings call, noting the obvious ("it's just much less hassle to talk than type"). 

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Megan Garber is a staff writer at The Atlantic. She was formerly an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab, where she wrote about innovations in the media.

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