Google takes on Siri with mind-reading AI

04 Oct 2012

ITEM: A year after Apple launched Siri – the virtual assistant app powered by artifical intelligence (AI) that finds stuff for you – Google is fighting back with its own AI-powered assistant app that finds stuff for you before you even ask for it.

It’s called Google Now, and it’s a feature of the latest version of Android (4.1, a.k.a. Jelly Bean), which is already available for Nexus devices and will reportedly be available for Samsung Galaxy S III and HTC One S and One X this month, according to CNET Asia.

Like Siri, Google Now fields voice commands and queries and can respond with speech. Unlike Siri, Google Now doesn’t rely on third-party services to get answers, but leverages Google’s Knowledge Graph database. And also unlike Siri, Google Now leverages info about the user’s life via web searches, email, etc, to predict what a user will ask for.

Hugo Barra, director of product management for Android, tells Technology Review: “It uses every system that Google has built in the last 10 years. It touches almost every back-end system at Google” and hides that power behind a simple, automatic interface.

According to TR, Google Now is not only smart enough to prioritize notifications – so, for example, a traffic jam notification is sent with an audible alert – but also flexible enough to let users sidestep mistakes, and learn from them:

Kryzstof Gajos, an assistant professor at Harvard who researches how to create intelligent, interactive software systems, says that Google has negotiated a problem that has crippled other attempts to create smarter software. "People take seconds saved for granted but perceive even two seconds of delay as negative," he says. "It has a serious cost unless you have designed in an alternative." It's best of all if that alternative is something familiar and quick to use, such as Google's search results, he says.

It’s early days, so it remains to be seen how well Google Now works, particularly outside North America. And naturally, it’s going to work better for users who opt in to have their personal data mined, which may be a sticking point for some.

But if the blogscape is anything to go by, Google Now is impressive enough that the ball is now squarely in Apple’s court.

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