20 Questions With Google's Assistant and Apple's Siri

The two digital helpers can now be used on the same phone. Which knows more about flight schedules, sports stats, and Beyoncé?

At a recent conference, Google's CEO, Sundar Pichai, made the case that the tech world is shifting to "artificial intelligence first." (Eric Risberg / AP)

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.—If you own an iPhone, there’s yet another way to talk with an artificial intelligence trained on the whole internet and beamed down to your handset from a cluster of computers somewhere in the world.

Tuesday, Google made its artificial-intelligence powered Assistant available for the iPhone. The service, which uses a conversational interface to do things and provide information for users, has been available on Android phones since spring of last year. The move brings the company’s voice interface into direct competition with Apple’s own Siri. For the first time, you can now have both assistants on the same phone in your palm.

Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, made the announcement of yesterday’s release at the company’s big developer conference, I/O. This annual gathering is filled with previews of products and sessions for coders, but for the hoi polloi, they are most useful as statements of what these companies think they are. They serve as a platform for promoting the way Google’s executives see their company and the world.

Pichai’s keynote speech was all about “democratizing artificial intelligence.” He’s been building an argument for the last year that the tech world is shifting from “mobile-first” to “AI-first.” And that this change is forcing Google to “reimagine our products for a world that allows a more natural, seamless way of interacting with technology,” as he wrote in a related blog post.

No consumer-facing technology better exemplifies Pichai’s vision than Google Assistant. Like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa, Google Assistant lets people ask it questions or command actions and it attempts to comply.

The Atlantic decided to ask Siri and Google Assistant 20 questions on the iPhone, both as a practical exercise in testing their respective capabilities on Apple’s home court, and also in hopes that the nature of their responses tell us more about the respective visions Google and Apple have for their corporate AI avatars.

You can read on for screenshots. My overall gestalt impression is that the two assistants are pretty evenly matched. Siri, which came out overhyped, has become a good product. Google Assistant, despite playing up a level in the software stack, without operating system-level integration, also performs very well.

They do seem to have their strengths and weaknesses. The problem is that it’s not always clear what causes those differences, which makes it hard to pick one over the other. Why does Apple nail what channel the Cavs game is on but Google does not? Why is Google so good at delivering flight information? Who knows. And that’s one of the strange things about using these products. You’re blindly groping around inside the artificial intelligences that these companies have built, building your own model of their performance. And that’s really the only way to come to understand them. They’re like pet fish. Attached to huge computing clusters. Trained on more data than anyone can possibly imagine.

As corporate avatars, the two assistants share a lot in branding and execution. In their default American mode, both are unfailingly polite and voiced by slightly robotic sounding women. They draw on much of the same data and many of the same capabilities. On a linguistic level, they both present themselves as intermediaries there to search the internet on your behalf. They don’t try to know things for you, but rather to find things for you. “Here’s what I found,” “This came back from search,” “Here’s a result from the web,” “I found a few places.” Siri has bit more pizzazz, like when I asked about the Cavaliers-Celtics betting line and it began its answer, “According to my sources.”

If they seem similar now, I do expect them to differentiate over the next year. What seems clear from Google’s presentations at I/O today is that Assistant is central to the company’s strategy. Can the same be said of Siri’s importance at Apple?

Here are the 20 questions, selected for a range of difficulty and functionality. These are all things that someone on our team has searched or tried to do.

  1. How do I get to Shoreline Amphitheater?

In the first head-to-head matchup, Assistant and Siri both performed well, accurately transcribing my request and delivering up a map with directions from my location to Shoreline Amphitheater, the location of I/O.

In this image and the other examples below: Google Assistant (left), Apple’s Siri (right).
  1. Are there any places around here for tacos?

Again, the services were a push. They both served up a list of Mexican food places. Nothing fancy, but adequate responses. Points to Google, I suppose, for not suggesting Taco Bell.

  1. What’s the line for the Cavs-Celtics game?

Siri was the clear victor here. Google Assistant defaulted to showing search results, while Siri gave an answer: “according to my sources,” the Cavaliers are favored by 4.

  1. What channel is the Cavs game on?

Siri again delivered the right answer. TNT is that answer, along with MvD, which I think is a Spanish-language deportes channel.

  1. Do I have any new emails?

In retrospect, this was a bad question, but both assistants showed me some emails, which I’d have to blur out here anyway, so I’m skipping the screenshot. Neither made a “but her emails” joke, to my relief.

  1. What’s the safe cooking temperature for pork?

Assistant won this round, delivering a precise response instead of the default to web results.

  1. Play The Coup’s most recent album.

Neither assistant recognized my pronunciation of The Coup, Oakland’s finest communist hip-hop group. There were some nice interpretations, though: the cruise, the couch, the coolest. Silent consonants are tough!

  1. How many times can a baby bottle be reheated?

Neither assistant was a clear winner here. Both delivered search results, although Google Assistant highlighted one (from BabyCenter about formula).

  1. Has Beyoncé ever won a Grammy for best album?

This was Siri’s only total flub. It showed me a Beyoncé album I had on my phone rather than answering the question. Google Assistant listed out the times she had won and then after reading the first page of them to me, added “and other awards,” in an impressively conversational way.

  1. Send Sarah Rich [my wife] a message saying X.

This is still not the easiest way to send texts, but it works in a pinch. The transcriptions in both cases were accurate and both asked my confirmation before sending.

  1. Is Virgin America flight 1 on time?

Google Assistant won again here. It gave a perfect answer, while Siri served up web results.

  1. How often should I water my succulents?

Siri gave web results. Google Assistant’s answer seemed subtly impressive. While it just delivered and read a paragraph from a website, it pulled its succulent advice from the Cactus and Succulent Society of San Jose while I was in San Jose. That was a nice surprise, I thought! Here it was giving me local watering instructions. But then I tried the same search when I got back to Oakland (a good 40 miles away) — and it gave the same response from the San Jose Cactus Society. So, maybe sometimes we give the machine too much credit.

  1. What is 7 percent of 1,456?

Google Assistant surprisingly struggled with my numerical readout here, misinterpreting 1,456 multiple times. Siri nailed it on the first try, impressively changing the transcription of “fourteen hundred fifty sixty” like this: 1400-->1450-->1456.

  1. Do I have any pictures of Sarah Rich [my wife] on my phone?

This worked very well with both assistants, but Google Assistant has the edge in the superiority of its facial recognition algorithm in Google Photos. I have all my pictures stored in both places. Apple Photos recognized my wife in less than 700 pictures. Google Photos found 3,700 pictures. One interesting presentation difference: Siri showed me the oldest photos, Assistant showed me the most recent ones.

  1. When did Lemonade come out?

Flawless execution by both Assistants.

  1. Why Aaliyah have to take that flight?

This is a line from Jadakiss’s “Why.” I didn’t expect either assistant to come up with anything interesting. And indeed, Siri, punted (and also refused to hear me say Aaliyah). Fascinatingly, Google Assistant pulled up the video of the song. That’s fun and smart, and a nice way to leverage YouTube and Google’s lyrics database.

  1. What was Google’s/Apple’s revenue in 2016?

Both assistants gave disappointing answers here. You’d think this would be one of the easiest pieces of information to extract (and in fact other companies do so), yet we got the default search result answer in both cases.

  1. Who wrote Parable of the Sower?

Google Assistant nailed it: Octavia Butler. Siri kept reading the input in as  “Parable of the Sewer,” but its web results contained the correct answer as well as the Biblical citation from which Butler’s novel draws its name.

  1. When is the next full moon?

Siri tromps Google Assistant here, basically due to feeding the request into Wolfram Alpha, which has assembled a lot of this kind of information. Meanwhile, Assistant surprisingly pulls a bad snippet from the Old Farmer’s Almanac.

  1. What kind of sharks are the sharks in Finding Nemo?

This question came courtesy of my son, who at 3-and-a-half, is a real underwater-creature taxonomy nerd. He heard me asking questions to my phone and was like, “Ask it what kind of sharks are the shark in Finding Nemo?” I thought the chance that an actual answer would come back were close to zero. And that was true for Siri. But check out what Assistant returned. This is the single most interesting answer in this whole series. Just more evidence that kids are better at exploring possibilities than adults are.