The future is AI, and Google just showed Apple how it’s done

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Under CEO Sundar Pichai, Google is betting big on AI.
Under CEO Sundar Pichai, Google is betting big on AI.
Photo: Google

After decades of showing us the best ways to interact with computers, Apple is lagging on the UI of the future — voice controls powered by smart, conversational AI.

Google, on the other hand, is placing artificial intelligence, in the form of Google Assistant, at the center of its new Pixel smartphones and Google Home smart speaker.

Cupertino’s mastery of the user interface is legendary: Macs, iPods and iPhones made the GUI, the mouse, the scroll wheel and multitouch mainstream. But Apple needs to get into the AI conversation if it’s serious about securing a place in our gabby future.

During Tuesday’s press event, which showed off the new phones, speaker and a VR headset called Daydream View, Google CEO Sundar Pichai acknowledged that it’s early days for Google Assistant. But he promised the AI would continuously improve and envisioned a day where it will become possible to build “an individual Google for each user.”

The hardware looked nice, but the always-on AI stole the show.

“Our vision for the Google Assistant is to be universal, to be there everywhere the user needs it to be,” Pichai said. While the Pixel phone will put Google’s AI front and center, Google Home is where it will really shine. That’s where we live, after all. And that’s where we will most naturally interact with AI assistants using voice commands.

Siri and Alexa: Dumb and dumber

First, let’s acknowledge the elephant in the room. Siri can be remarkably stupid.

For every text message dashed off successfully by voice using Apple’s AI assistant, there’s a simple question that yields ludicrous results. Alexa, the brains behind Amazon’s always-listening Echo and Dot speakers, isn’t going to win a genius contest anytime soon either.

Siri is not necessarily there when you need her, either. On Apple TV and older iPhones, Siri remains a button push away (although the “Hey Siri” feature, which works with iPhone 6s and newer models, makes the AI helper a bit more ubiquitous).

Amazon’s smart speakers nail the always-on experience, though, by making voice commands in the home pleasantly plausible. Despite Alexa’s occasional dimwit response, Amazon’s speakers deliver a voice-controlled experience that’s reminiscent of the type of human-computer interactions Star Trek promised us generations ago.

With Google Home, the new smart speaker that looks a little bit like a Renuzit, that sort of sci-fi experience looks poised for a massive leap forward.

All hail Google Assistant

Like Google’s new Pixel phones, Google Home is powered by Google Assistant, which harnesses the search giant’s massive knowledge graph to deliver results that make sense. And like Alexa, Google Home will be constantly listening, always at the ready to do your bidding. (Unless you push the mute button.)

Apple is rumored to be working on a similar device, possibly with facial recognition built in, but we appear to be a way from seeing it on the market.

Apple TV works as a smart home hub right now, but if you want to issue spoken commands, you’ve got to find that super-slim remote and press a button before you open your mouth. And Apple TV, while getting more useful all the time, remains tethered to Siri’s subprime AI.

I’m willing to bet that the lack of core voice functionality is one big reason HomeKit — the ambitious home automation platform Apple unveiled at its Worldwide Developers Conference in 2014 — continues to languish, with relatively few HomeKit- compatible products on the market.. (Multiple developers have told Cult of Mac that Apple’s rigorous security standards have slowed down HomeKit as well.)

Apple TV isn’t listening

Apple TV
For Apple TV to become a legit home hub, it needs to listen up.
Photo: Jim Merithew/Cult of Mac

If Apple wants the Apple TV to be a true home hub, it needs to work by voice.

It’s one thing to set up a rule that turns on your lights and fires up the heater when you pull your car into the garage. It’s another to be able to issue voice commands — “turn off the kitchen lights,” “play some Ozzy-era Black Sabbath,” etc. — and have these things happen reliably and with zero effort.

If you’re talking about a smart home, you’re talking about a home you can talk to. If you’re stuck memorizing voice commands, you’re stuck in the clunky past.

Amazon’s Alexa offers a taste of the better, smarter future. It might sound like hyperbole, but using Alexa on an Amazon Echo is truly transformative. Ask Alexa to set a timer, play a song or tell you the temperature a few times, and you’ll soon find yourself wanting to say “turn down the lights,” even if you don’t own a single smart bulb.

Siri works similarly well with straightforward, well-defined tasks. But lacking an array of far-field microphones like the ones in Amazon’s speakers and Google Home, Siri comes up short.

Adding Google’s AI to the mix will make this type of human-computer interaction even more commonplace, especially once so-called Conversation Actions open up “back and forth” interactions. (Google’s demo used the Uber app as an example: Conversation Actions would allow you to say, “Call me an Uber.” Then the Uber app could ask where you were going, what size car you wanted, etc.)

If Google Home can match Alexa’s voice-recognition capabilities and also put the internet’s default knowledge base at your beck and call, all in a package that enables seamless interaction, we’ll all be talking to computers much more frequently.

Some people worry about the privacy implications of an always-listening gadget, and for those people, Google Home includes a mute button. For the rest of us, the utility of a truly useful AI assistant will outweigh any paranoid thoughts.

Google’s open embrace of AI

During Tuesday’s demo, Google Assistant looked very advanced. As quick as Alexa and as smart as Google, it delivered relevant responses that sounded much less stilted than almost anything Siri does.

Yes, I realize this was a demo, and that demos aren’t the real world.

But anybody who has ever used the Google app on an iPhone knows that it delivers actionable information no matter the request, whereas Siri works from a scripted playbook that works for certain queries but just can’t compete (at least not yet). Google Assistant, described by the company as “your own personal Google,” is driven by the deep learning that powers Now Cards and other increasingly useful Google products.

Even more powerful, Google’s emphatic embrace of open systems means that working with third-party services like Uber and IFTTT will be a part of Google Assistant’s DNA. Just as Alexa offers Skills and Apple TV works with apps, Google Home will undoubtedly empower third-party developers to craft useful add-ons.

Google Assistant delivers AI to the masses

We’ve all heard the chatter about Apple’s lack of innovation and slowness to roll out new features. Everybody knows Apple doesn’t really care about being first. And the company clearly prizes privacy, even if it may hamper its own artificial intelligence pursuits.

But while Cupertino’s deliberative approach arguably produces the finest hardware anywhere, Google is pushing the innovation envelope when it comes to delivering an AI assistant that works in real-world scenarios.

What’s the real risk to Apple?

Google’s track record when it comes to hardware is spotty. But if Google Assistant proves as good as it looked during the Google Home and Pixel phone demos, there could be trouble in Cupertino.

Every lame response from Siri will make us less likely to use Apple’s AI assistant the next time. Every brilliant response from Google Home will make Siri seem stupider in comparison.

Apple showed everyone how to make computer, touchscreen and AI interfaces work in the real world. Thanks to Apple, we’ve fully embraced easy-to-use computers, sleek smartphones and powerful tablets. And we’re even getting used to talking to our devices, a concept Siri pioneered.

Now, Google looks ready to take control of the conversation when it comes to human-computer interaction. Let’s hope Apple’s AI hiring spree means Cupertino is crafting a witty (yet sensible) rejoinder.

  • A@E

    My problem with Google is like you said…they are spotty with hardware. They also have a very short attention span. Makes me a little scared to drop Apple in favor of Google. But I do agree Siri needs some serious attention from Apple.

    • 10,000 Angry Vegans

      Agree.

      Siri is awful, and though the iPhone 7 shows an almost breathtaking lack of imagination, you know it will be premium grade reliable product that will be supported thoroughly in terms of after sales support, software, platform updates and accessories for many years yet. You will also get far more of its value back on eBay two years from now, which is something most Android owners tend to overlook when complaining about cost.

      I do remain concerned that there are now many areas where Apple is lagging behind, and the company seemingly doesn’t recognise it. Listening to them, you’d think Siri was an astonishing breakthrough that rightly belonged on the other side of a wormhole to the 25th century. Reading the blurb, the 7’s battery is supposed to deliver the “best performance and battery life ever”. Of course, Siri is so utterly dim-witted it regularly makes you want to bend your phone in half, and real world battery performance on the 7 is not an obvious improvement over the 6S; it is in fact demonstrably worse than many equivalent Android devices.

      Ten years ago most smartphone buyers knew next to nothing about smartphones, and certainly didn’t appreciate what features they needed or which capabilities would make their lives easier. Now everyone’s far wiser when it comes to technology, Apple can no longer afford to be half-hearted in their approach to new products and live off all the PR and marketing.

      As evidenced by the last two reviews in The Guardian, for example, they can’t count on a previously loyal press either. They should be worried, and rightly so.

      • Everyone’s Horrible 2016

        “Siri is awful”: subjective. Siri works perfectly for me.

  • Yujin

    Google assistant has always been good, but the biggest issue for me is what is doing with my data, how long google wil “experiment” with this new venture and performance. The prices are premium, but the phone is not. Meanwhile, Apple may be behind but they are not going to have an assistant like google, not only cause they put privacy first, but they want to have AI to be in the background and not full center stage in your face.

    Personally, I loathe talking to my phone in public. I’m sure that is the deal breaker for most of us. Maybe Siri we will be able to iMessage Siri on iOS 11.

    • WiscoNative

      The phone hardware may not be premium (disagree, but that’s subjective), but the services are certainly worth something. People pay for software all the time, it makes sense that they would pay premium-phone prices to have early access to the Google Assistant.

  • stevesill

    The Google Assistant is just Google Now with a different name. You can already do most of what was demonstrated with the Google App, though if you want something labeled Assistant, you can download Allo and try it there. The hardware may fade away, but the software won’t, though if I wasn’t only 5 months into my S7 Edge I would jump on Pixel.

  • Jeroen Swets

    People. Don’t. Want. To. Talk. To. Devices.

    • WiscoNative

      The popularity of the Amazon Echo begs to disagree. It may not be common to talk to devices while out in public, but some people like being able to use voice commands while at home.

    • Tom

      You might not talk to your phone, but all my group of friends have ditched their yellow pages, whenever we want to call a buisness thats obviously not in our phone memory, google digs deep and places the call, and its %100 accurate so we have ditched yellow pages, if you say call it will, if you say phone no it displays the no for you to call, im not going back to typing in this info in a search when the power of google does this.

    • herbaled

      I want to talk to my devices. To set my i-Phone’s alarm clock at a certain tim,e I have to do multiple clicks and scrolls. Or I can simply click and hold the home button and say “Siri, wake me up at 8 AM.”

      • Very true, and I used to do it all the time. What has eluded me up to this point is figuring out how to tell Siri not to always automatically turn the “snooze” feature on. Since it always does this, I have to always go into the alarm settings and turn it off, so voice setting an alarm is pointless. Just one more gripe against the lack of deep customization in iOS. In general there have been so many things that Siri either doesn’t get right or just can’t deal with that for the most part I ignore it altogether. I absolutely love how precise the Google app or Google Chrome app understands my voice searches and understands what I say. I sorely wish that Google’s assistant or whatever it’s called could replace Siri at the phone OS level but, of course, that will never happen. *sigh*.

  • Rick Gold

    Talk about jumping the gun… this product was just TALKED about.. it has not delivered on any of the stuff you’ve spewed forward… and your opinion of Apples AI is just that, an opinion. Talk to me when you talk to a few AI engineers. I’ve used both platforms and both make stupid mistakes, but both are getting better. Quit throwing Siri under the bus because Google told you something on stage yesterday.

    • leehardacre

      Are you serious? Siri just got its arse spanked and Alexa got poked in the eye. I’m Apple through and through but they really need to take note, Google have got this nailed on.

    • WiscoNative

      Yeah…Apple never jumps the gun on announcing things…

      iPhone 7 Plus Portrait Mode (who knows when it’ll be released?)
      iPad Pro 12.9″ (two month wait)
      Mac Pro (six month wait)
      Apple Watch (7 months 15 days!)
      Siri was in “Beta” for two years!

      Not to mention the extended beta periods after Apple announces a new version of iOS or macOS, before it’s released to the public. Does that upset you as well? Because that’s basically what Google announced, it just happens that they’re a different company.

      • Rick Gold

        You seem to confuse DEVELOPER announcements for product announcements. From what I understand the portrait mode software simply wasn’t performing as well as Apple wanted, so it was delayed… better then most Android manufacturers who consistently shoehorn in buggy software gimmicks. Siri was in Beta for two years because they wanted it tested.. a lot.

        The point of my statement was not that Google jumped the gun.. they’ve been doing AI for some time, just like Apple. The author jumped the gun by slobbering praise upon a product no one can possibly have tested enough to make the claims he is.

        I complain about Siri all the time, but know what, Google Assistant fucks up as well.. and all the crap they talk about in the video is what Siri does as well, so I really don’t get where people say Google Ai is light years ahead.

        Both Google and Apple us edeep learning in their AI, but I will admit Google has the edge in search tech, and that is a big trove of data indeed. But I still don’t agree their AI is moping the floor with Siri..

      • WiscoNative

        Let’s simplify: Google announces new software feature, and you get upset that it’s compared favorably to the competition. Would you get just as upset about Apple’s iOS betas being compared to Android?

      • Rick Gold

        Perhaps I missed something… this isn’t a announcement for any sort of beta or future product… this is due.. like soon no?

      • WiscoNative

        Yes, it is. My point remains, though, that if we’re getting upset about a company announcing a product that’s being released soon but not immediately, we must get upset about all of them doing that, right?

      • Rick Gold

        Lol.. dude.. not upset about the company.. I’m chastising the author here for shitting on Siri compared to a product he can’t possibly have tried yet… it’s a common thing in tech:-) Or vice presidential debates so it seems…

    • elthesensai

      I love Apple and I’m as a hardcore fan (fanboy) as any but you can’t honestly be arguing that Siri is in the same league as Google, because it’s not. Siri is good to shoot a text or make a phone call but that’s about it. Simple test, ask Siri what’s the closest hamburger joint. Now ask Google. Assistant will make it even better.

  • ljmac43

    NEVER compare a demo with a shipping product – do you think we’d see the flaws in Siri if it too was just a demo? Having said that though, it’s becoming clearer and clearer to me that Apple has lost its way since Jobs died: I still can’t tolerate the godawful UI of iOS7+ and 10.10+, which I’m certain a man of Jobs’ taste would never have allowed out in public; their hardware design is in paralysis, as are their Mac updates; and they seem to be letting more and more serious bugs get through, while the key technologies they used to be at the cutting edge of are languishing. I think this is because they’ve forgotten Jobs’ key lesson: focus. I’m sure Jobs would never have released an Apple watch, nor would he be trying to build an Apple car. This stuff is diverting key resources from their core business.

  • herbaled

    You demonstrate that you really don’t understand Apple, nor have you learned anything from Apple history when you write: “But Apple needs to get into the AI conversation if it’s serious about securing a place in our gabby future.”

    Of course Apple is “serious” about AI, but it’s being serious about it the way it’s always done things … Secretly! Which is why Apple is doing the opposite of what you say it should … i.e., Apples is deliberately not “… get(ing) into the AI conversation.”

    Don’t be fooled yet again. You can bet your booties that Apple is hard at work on AI, and will eventually … when it’s “good” and ready … wow the the world.