Another Google I/O is upon us and – surprise surprise – this year's show has focused heavily on Google’s ambitions with Assistant and the smart home. Smarter? Yep. More capable? You betcha. More human? That too, and with it some interesting ethical conversations emerge – we'll get to that.
With a keynote lasting two hours there was a lot to take in, and you’re forgiven if you didn’t manage to catch all of it. Here’s a catch-up on the most important announcements from Google I/0 2018.
Assistant is getting conversational… maybe too conversational
Assistant can do a lot, but the to-and-fro of conversation is often stilted and rarely flows naturally. That’s going to change with a new feature called Continued Conversation that will protract Assistant’s contextual awareness. Right now you can do a little back and forth before having to say “Hey Google” again or remind it of the topic, but now you’ll be able to keep the exchange going for lengthier exchanges. Assistant is also getting six new voices (right now it has two) and one of them will be John Legend, who incidentally just went from blue to green in his text exchange with Kanye West. Go figure.
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None of that prepared us for what followed, the moment that elicited the biggest response of this year's I/O keynote. Google showed off a new feature called Google Duplex, which will get Assistant to actually make phone calls for you. Google sees an immediate application here for calling businesses to make appointments, as shown in a stage demo where Assistant was used to book a hairdressing appointment.
To take us even deeper into the uncanny valley, the Duplex Assistant will give pauses and filler sounds, so that the person on the other end of the phone won’t feel like they're talking to an algorithm. Google will need to get this right – we expect that there'll need to be some disclosure that they're speaking to a machine and not a person – but the idea is undeniably fascinating.
Multiple Actions incoming
Google is also enabling you to thread multiple actions into those extended conversations, which means you’ll be able to, say, ask it for the weather in multiple locations in one sentence. You’ll also be able to say something like “Hey Google, turn on the lights downstairs and outside” rather than splitting it into two commands.
And better routines
Google’s routines let you perform multiple tasks with a single command, but until now you’ve had to use one of Google’s six pre-set options (“I’m home” etc). Google’s now matching Amazon Alexa by letting you customise your own routines and choose your own phrase to get it going – and the feature is live now. Later in the summer, you’ll also be able to schedule routines for certain times of day.
Where are your manners?
Designed for kids and rolling out later this year is Pretty Please, a feature designed to get children to use politeness markers when speaking to Google Assistant. Apparently there are parents concerned that smart assistants are encouraging bad conversational habits, and Pretty Please will require kids to say “please” and “thank you” when asking Assistant to do things.
As is becoming routine in this tit-for-tat battle between Google and Amazon, Pretty Please follows the Amazon Echo Dot Kids Edition, announced last month and shipping from 9 May. Rather than creating a separate speaker, Google is enabling Pretty Please as an optional feature, though it will require the Family Link app to work.
Assistant is getting native controls for your appliances
Announced in a separate developer keynote session, Google revealed that nine new types of device will now support native Assistant integration. Ovens, refrigerators, air purifiers, fans, air conditioners, coffee makers, blinds, kettles and sprinklers will all work natively with Google Assistant.
By adding native control, you can directly ask Google to perform the task – such as warming up the oven – instead of asking it to ask the device, which convolutes the process unnecessarily. Google's also launching new traits that will let the Assistant recognise fan speed and temperature control, plus one for talking to location tracking devices.
Screen Assistants are coming
I/O was light on new hardware, but Google did give us a launch date for its Assistant Smart Displays. They'll be available from July, and will arrive with YouTube TV and a cooking experience alongside the gamut of usual Google software suspects. There will be three speakers to buy out of the gate: the JBL Link View, the Lenovo Smart Display and the Archos Hello. Rumours suggest Google is working on its own Home device with a screen, but that could be a few months away, if it's even true.