Google’s answer to Siri thinks ahead

A smartphone helper that answers queries before you even ask them
October 2, 2012

Google Now (credit: Google)

Google’s vision of how a smartphone can become a trusted, all-knowing assistant is rolling out to consumers in the form of Google Now.

It’s a feature of the newest iteration of Android, Jelly Bean, which is so far available on only a handful of smartphones, and suggests that Google has ambitions to go well beyond what Siri has shown so far, Technology Review reports.

Like Siri, Google Now can take voice commands related to phone functions such as setting reminders or sending messages, and field requests for information such as “How old is the Eiffel Tower?” and “Where can I find a good Chinese restaurant?”

Also like Siri, Google Now responds with speech. However, rather than passing along queries to third-party services such as Yelp for answers, Google’s helper makes use of the company’s recently launched Knowledge Graph, a database that categorizes information in useful ways (see “Google’s New Brain Could Have a Big Impact“).

Google Now also introduces a new trick. It combines the constant stream of data a smartphone collects on its owner with clues about the person’s life that Google can sift from Web searches and e-mails to guess what he or she would ask it for next. This enables Google Now not only to meet a user’s needs but also, in some cases, to preëmpt them. Virtual index cards appear offering information it thinks you need to know at a particular time.

Google Now can automatically notify a user about the weather, traffic, upcoming appointments, flights, nearby businesses such as restaurants and cafés, sports results, public transit and travel information, and movie show times. It’s also smart enough to gauge that some things matter more than others. Unusually bad traffic on your commuting route, for example, warrants an audible notification, while events just appear on the screen the next time you check your phone.

Like many Google products — and Siri, too — Google Now is built on top of machine learning, a branch of AI concerned with using large amounts of data to inform decisions. Also like other Google products, Google Now gets better as the company collects more data and refines its algorithms.