Google pushes deep into hardware with new Wifi, Chromecast, Home, and Pixel smartphone devices at a press event in San Francisco, California on October 4, 2016
Google pushes deep into hardware with new Wifi, Chromecast, Home, and Pixel smartphone devices at a press event in San Francisco, California on October 4, 2016

Google Home and Amazon Echo usher in future of voice-controlled AI computers that nobody ever sees

Google’s Assistant is the computer feature of the future. But it only exists in the internet and can only be communicated with by talking to it

Andrew Griffin
Wednesday 05 October 2016 15:21

Google has revealed a range of new hardware at its biggest event of the year. But none of it actually matters.

The company took to the stage in California to show off its Google Home speaker, a little rounded obelisk that sits in people’s houses, and its Pixel phone. It talked about their design – both featuring the white plastic, brushed metal look that almost every gadget has nowadays – and how much care it had taken in creating what is the first phone it has ever made itself.

But it became very quickly clear that both devices, and everything else it announced, were all just vehicles for one thing. A robot assistant that is meant to help everyone with everything they need.

If the Assistant takes off as Google clearly means it too – and it is betting heavily that it will – then it will mark an entirely new way of thinking about computers. Google talked about artificial intelligence, voice recognition and the huge amount of information that it stores during the event – but the Assistant isn’t a piece of technology on that scale, it’s instead looking to unite them all in what could be the next paradigm for computing.

Computers, despite being talked about like a new technology, really aren’t. They have been around for decades, and so has the internet. Through that time, they’ve been through a number of changes – gradually getting quicker, more connected, more mobile – but some things, like a screen and controlling them by physically touching them, have stayed the same.

Now all that looks to be removed. The world’s biggest companies are all revealing computers that aren’t controlled by anything but their users voice, and can only interact with them through sound.

It is a whole new computing paradigm that looks set to transform people’s houses and the way they leave, as well as the ways that they get hold of information.

It was Siri that brought voice-controlled assistants into the mainstream, when it arrived with the iPhone 4s. But it was still very much tied to the phone: it was launched by pressing a button on that phone, and most of the information that it had to display would ultimately be communicated through its screen.

Apple hasn’t yet unveiled anything on the scale of Echo or Google Home yet, despite making moves towards it, like adding features including always-on “Hey Siri”, which lets people start talking to their phone without touching it. It has been rumoured to be working on its own version of something for the home, but for the time being seems to be focused on having Siri follow you around to make sure its always available – accessible through your Watch, or through the new wireless AirPods.

It was Amazon that really made the first computer that only operated through voice. Its Echo was released a couple of years ago in the US and just started being rolled out internationally.

Its features are limited at the moment, only allowing it to call on the internet for limited bits of information, controlling things in the house or playing music. But the way that Alexa, the internet-powered voice assistant inside of Echo, works is its real breakthrough – it can easily be powered with mostly natural language, and without ever resorting to an app or a screen.

If people’s vision of the home of the future is to come true, then that is exactly what will be needed. Eventually the device – the phone, or whatever else – will have to fade away, and instead your house will just listen out for you shouting at it.

Google’s announcement looked to get even closer to that future.

Its assistant is actually called Google Assistant, rather than Alexa or Siri, but it aims at much the same thing. And the Assistant isn’t just based in one device, but in a range of Google products – meaning that it can be truly disembodied, not connected even to any particular physical product.

Further, it appears to be able to do more than Alexa can, since it can call on the huge amount of information that Google stores. It can view recipes pulled off the internet, or work out information that is written on a particular website.

Introducing Google's phone - Pixel

That same benefit is a drawback, too. Google makes its money by collecting data – giving it back to its users as useful information, but also using it to advertise to them, sucking up people’s private lives to better target marketing.

Home will be a new step in that direction. It’s not clear what Google will do with the information that it keeps – and it will only be listening out for the OK Google phrase that will wake it up – but by letting Google into our house and allowing it to run our entire lives more will be at stake, too.

And it does look to run every bit of our lives. In its announcement, Google showed that the phone will be able to almost everything we would ever need – look up how far a restaurant is through Google Maps, book us a seat there, tell our friends what time to meet, add that to a calendar, and even give us friendly banter as we sit on the bus.

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