Artificial intelligence

Google makes high-stakes bet on its new Assistant

Google's new Assistant steps into the ring with the likes of Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana. It would deliver the knock-out punch if it, as envisioned by Google, would always be around, wherever you are, on whatever device you u
Google's new Assistant steps into the ring with the likes of Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana. It would deliver the knock-out punch if it, as envisioned by Google, would always be around, wherever you are, on whatever device you use, to handle just about any informational task.PHOTO: NYTIMES

AI machine would be predictive, super-helpful and all-knowing

NEW YORK • Google has shovelled vast financial and engineering resources into a collection of data mining and artificial intelligence systems, from speech recognition to machine translation to computer vision.

Now, the company is melding these advances into a new product, a technology whose ultimate aim is something like the talking computer on Star Trek.

It is a high-stakes bet: If this new tech fails, it could signal the beginning of the end of Google's reign over our lives. But if it succeeds, Google could achieve a centrality in human experience unrivalled by any tech product so far.

The company calls its version of this all-powerful machine the Goo- gle Assistant. Today, it resembles other digital helpers you've likely used - things like Apple's Siri, Amazon's Alexa and Microsoft's Cortana.

It currently lives in Google's new messaging app, Allo, and will be featured in a few gadgets that the company plans to unveil next week, including a new smartphone and an Amazon Echo-like talking computer called Google Home.

But Google has much grander aims for the Assistant.

People at the company say that Mr Sundar Pichai, who took over as Google's chief executive last year after Google was split into a conglomerate called Alphabet, has bet the company on the new tech.

Mr Pichai declined a request for an interview, but at Google's developer conference in May, he called the development of the Assistant "a seminal moment" for the company.

If the Assistant or something like it does not take off, Google's status as the chief navigator of our digital lives could be superseded by a half-dozen other assistants.

You might interact with Alexa in your house, with Siri on your phone, and with Facebook Messenger's chatbot when you're out and about.

Google's search engine (not to mention its Android operating system, Chrome, Gmail, Maps and other properties) would remain popular and lucrative, but possibly far less so than they are today. That's the threat.

But the Assistant also presents Google with a delicious opportunity. The Star Trek computer is no metaphor. The company believes that machine learning has advanced to the point that it is now possible to build a predictive, all-knowing, super-helpful and conversational assistant of the sort that Captain Kirk relied on to navigate the stars.

The Assistant, in Google's most far-out vision, would always be around, wherever you are, on whatever device you use, to handle just about any informational task.

Consider this common situation: Today, to book a trip, you usually have to load up several travel sites, consult your calendar and coordinate with your family and your colleagues.

If the Assistant works as well as Google hopes, all you might have to do is say: "Okay, Google, I need to go to Hong Kong next week. Take care of it."

Based on your interactions with it over the years, Google would know your habits, your preferences and your budget. It would know your friends, family and your colleagues.

With access to so much data, and with the computational power to interpret all of it, the Assistant most likely could handle the entire task; if it couldn't, it would simply ask you to fill in the gaps, the way a human assistant might.

Computers have made a lot of everyday tasks far easier to accomplish, yet they still require a sometimes annoying level of human involvement to get the most out of them. The Assistant's long-term aim is to eliminate all this work.

If it succeeds, it would be the ultimate expression of what Mr Larry Page, Google's co-founder, once described as the perfect search engine: a machine that "understands exactly what you mean and gives you back exactly what you want".

NYTIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 01, 2016, with the headline 'Google makes high-stakes bet on its new Assistant'. Print Edition | Subscribe