Once the realm of pure science fiction, voice-based artificial intelligence is now a reality. Thanks to the help of A.I. like Alexa, Siri, and the Google Assistant, we’re now at the point where it’s entirely possible to listen to the news, see the day’s weather, send a text message, and start watching a video about the best way to fold your socks without looking up from your morning cereal or touching a device. If you’re an Android user, none is more integrated than the Google Assistant. It’s in your phone, it can be in your living room, and it’s ready to help you on the road.
Google’s artificial intelligence is as helpful or subtle as you want. But it hasn’t always been this way. Artificial intelligence has gone from fantasy to an integral part of our lives in just a few short years — and in the case of Google Assistant, it has sidled into our homes and lives without doing as much as disturbing the drapes. Here’s the history of how Google’s artificial intelligence came to dominate the Android world.
The past is now
Look back up the Google Assistant’s family tree and it’s clear Google’s A.I. owes a lot to at least two previous services. The first and oldest part of Google Assistant is Google Voice Search. Voice Search made its debut on Android smartphones and Chrome for desktop PCs way back in June 2011, and while its functionality was basic by today’s standards, being able to give your phone voice commands marked a serious change in the way we were starting to interact with technology.
But Google Now was the real seismic shift in artificial intelligence. Built on Google Voice Search, development of Google Now was code-named “Majel” — after Majel Barrett, wife of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry and voice of the computer in many Star Trek series. While also an Easter egg, the code name was clearly a statement of Google’s intent — a dedication to achieving Star Trek‘s utopian future-tech.
While Google Now wasn’t exactly an all-seeing or all-knowing computer, it formed the skeleton of the Google’s Assistant’s highly personalized feed. First introduced in Android 4.1 Jelly Bean, Google Now delivered your schedule, weather, and other useful information in a series of cards and notifications, letting you know if you needed to leave early for an appointment in order to avoid traffic, or telling you about nearby restaurants. Later updates brought in Gmail integration, and it was even smuggled onto iOS devices as a part of the iOS Google Search app.
Like Voice Search, you could ask Google Now questions — but unlike its predecessor, you would get responses spoken out loud, marking an important step toward a true A.I. experience. While useful, Google Now’s ability to converse was extremely limited, and it wasn’t capable of the sort of intricate conversations Google Assistant is now known for.
Most importantly, Google Now also introduced an iconic phrase that would become one of the keystones of the Google Assistant experience — the “OK Google” hotword.
The birth and growth of Google Assistant
Google Now was a revolution in how we interacted with our phones — but Google Assistant was a snapshot of the future.
Despite that grandiose statement, Google’s Assistant began life as a humble extra on Google’s Allo chat app. Its first job was to pop up during chats when useful, or when invited. It wasn’t perfect — and Google was still clearly keeping it at arm’s length from the rest of its services — but it was just the beginning. Google Assistant’s development was being treated differently from anything before it — as evidenced by Google’s hiring of Google Doodle head Ryan Germick and ex-Pixar animator Emma Coats to give the Assistant more personality.
But it wasn’t long before Google Assistant broke free of its chains, coming first as a stand-alone feature to the original Google Pixel and the Google Home, before also arriving on other smartphones running Android 6.0 Marshmallow and above in 2017. This implementation of Assistant is probably the first time we saw the modern Assistant, with an interface that could be called up with the Home button and the ability to reply in a more conversational manner.
Though the initial version featured some gulfs between capabilities on mobile and Home speakers, Google reduced that gap as the months went by and quickly added Assistant functionality to its other products. Last year also saw Google announce its intention to add its Assistant to Android TV.
Easy assistance, no matter where you are
We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the impact of Google Assistant on smart speakers. Launched alongside the Google Assistant at Google I/O 2016, the Google Home was the first smart speaker to include Google’s Assistant, but it wasn’t the last.
Google debuted the Google Home Mini in October 2017 — but most notable was the influx of hardware from other manufacturers with support for the Assistant. Google’s Assistant SDK allowed companies like JBL and LG to quickly include smart functionality in their hardware, without having to develop their own software. The Assistant also made the jump to smart displays, following in Amazon’s footsteps with smart displays from multiple manufacturers, and eventually the Google Home Hub.
It’s not just a small smattering of manufacturers that are using Google’s A.I. — as of May 2018, Google reported that more than 5,000 devices are now connected with the Google Assistant.
The future of the Assistant
So what lies ahead for the Google Assistant? Based on everything that’s come before, Google is nowhere near done with developing new features, and it’s highly likely it never will be. Will we look back at where we are now the same way we now look at the primitive nature of Google Now?
Google’s latest major addition to the Assistant is Duplex — a feature that allows the Assistant to call businesses and book appointments on your behalf. It responds to questions and alterations in real time, and uses filler words like “um-hm”. It was so convincing that some people worried it could be used to dupe real people. Thankfully, Google assured us that disclosure is built into the software.
But Duplex is just the start of a new era for Google Assistant, and with Google’s software having gone from voice search to calling businesses in just seven years, imagine what A.I. will look like in 20. Scary? A little. But we’re also excited to see Star Trek’s “Majel” introduced into every aspect of our lives.