Google has stepped up its battle with Apple to manage our lives by planting its Siri-rivalling digital assistant deep inside enemy territory, like a helpful Trojan horse. Google Now is this week available on iPhones and iPads, vastly broadening the reach of the company’s voice search and mission to read our minds. But what is it, and can it defeat Siri?
I get it simply by updating my Google Search app. When it opens, a series of “cards” shuffles into view. One gives me a local weather forecast I never asked for (but quite appreciate), while another tells me it will take me 27 minutes to get home, with bad traffic on the A202, and offers a link to directions.
But how does it know where I live? Because ages ago I marked “home” on Maps while logged into my Google account. And this is how Now, which requires an account, works – the more it knows about you, the smarter it is. If I carry on using it, Now promises to learn from all my Google activity. On the morning you go on holiday, your flight status will appear based on the booking-confirmation email. When you land, you get details of the car rental you booked. Currency rates appear for the country, along with a reminder of the time back home, and, later, directions to the museum you Googled before you left.
You can opt out of any of this if it sounds a bit Minority Report, but Google is increasingly committed to giving us search results before we realise we want them. Now also works with Google Glasses, where it will respond to what you’re seeing (other than people who think you look silly).
The voice function, it turns out, is less interesting than the cards. I ask Now and Siri: “Where can I get a pizza?” Both instantly offer a list of restaurants (Pizza Hut is 159 feet from my desk, Google says). Then I ask the standard artificial-intelligence question: “What’s the meaning of life?” Now, which doesn’t talk, offers the dictionary definition of “life”. Siri tells me: “I find it odd that you would ask this of an inanimate object.” That’s a win for me.