Why Google As­sis­tant is win­ning the AI game

Google’s new toys make the gap be­tween Ap­ple and Google even wider, ar­gues MICHAEL SI­MON

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You might have missed the Ap­ple ref­er­ences dur­ing the re­cent Google Pixel 2 event, but they were there. There was VP of Prod­uct Man­age­ment Mario Queiroz telling the crowd, “We don’t set aside bet­ter fea­tures for the larger de­vices.” Or point­ing out that “even iMes­sages” would be trans­ferred over when you de­cide to switch. And let’s not for­get the woman tak­ing a big bite out of an ap­ple dur­ing the Pixel 2’s in­tro video.

In fact, it seemed like ev­ery new Google prod­uct re­leased last month had a sin­gu­lar mes­sage seem­ingly aimed squarely at Ap­ple. Google might have a long way to go be­fore it starts sell­ing iPhone-like num­bers of Pixel phones, but there is one im­por­tant area where it’s firmly in the lead, and it has noth­ing to do with bezels or beats. It’s about in­tel­li­gence.

At Ap­ple’s Septem­ber iPhone X event, Tim Cook pulled out Steve Jobs’s old Wayne Gret­zky quote about skat­ing to where the puck is go­ing, but there’s only one firm that’s think­ing for­ward right now and it’s not Ap­ple – it’s Google. New hard­ware might have been the rea­son for the event, but ma­chine learn­ing was the strong­est un­der­cur­rent, and the mes­sage Google sent was clear: our AI is bet­ter than yours.

Brains be­fore beauty

Google CEO Sun­dar Pichai kicked off the Made by Google event by talk­ing about his favourite topic: ma­chine learn­ing. It’s not enough that Google makes un­can­nily ac­cu­rate search al­go­rithms any­more. Google is us­ing its AI smarts to make its prod­ucts more re­spon­sive and adapt­able to each user’s life­style.

It’s not about specs (al­though the Pixel phones have re­ally good ones) or de­sign (al­though the Google Home Max will look good in any room). In fact, none of Google’s new prod­ucts are all that in­ter­est­ing on the sur­face, but what’s in­side is leaps and bounds ahead of what Ap­ple is do­ing with Siri and iPhone X. It’s about smarts, and Google has in­te­grated Google As­sis­tant and ma­chine learn­ing into ev­ery one of its de­vices in a, dare I say it, Ap­ple-like way.

There’s the im­pulse-buy Google Home Mini and the high-fidelity Max to put As­sis­tant in ev­ery room of your house. Ac­tive Edge on the Pixel lets you squeeze the sides of your phone to launch As­sis­tant. And the As­sis­tant-pow­ered Pixel Buds fea­ture a re­mark­able live trans­la­tion fea­ture. Google’s lat­est prod­ucts are de­signed from the in­side out to be smarter than they are pretty, a big bet that con­sumers are tired of good-look­ing gad­gets that put form be­fore func­tion. And if it’s right, Ap­ple could be play­ing catch-up for years to come.

Con­ver­sa­tions, not com­mands

Ap­ple’s first home AI speaker won’t hit shelves un­til De­cem­ber, but Google al­ready has three of them. When it was an­nounced in June, HomePod ap­peared

to have an ad­van­tage over Google Home and Ama­zon Echo with its high-fidelity, room-sens­ing smarts, but now Google Home Max has landed, and it might be even bet­ter.

Like HomePod, Google Home Max uses ma­chine learn­ing to an­a­lyse your space to de­liver op­ti­mal sound, but Google’s method gets more gran­u­lar and fine-tunes the sound based on the song you’re lis­ten­ing to as well as ad­just­ing based on Max’s sur­round­ings. But if they’re even when it comes to sound, the real dif­fer­ence-maker is Google As­sis­tant.

Ap­ple has im­proved Siri’s speech pat­terns in iOS 11, but for the most part, its AI am­bi­tions have been rel­a­tively con­ser­va­tive. Google As­sis­tant isn’t just bet­ter at rec­og­niz­ing what you’re say­ing, it’s more con­tex­tual and con­ver­sa­tional, which leads to an all-around bet­ter ex­pe­ri­ence. And with the new rou­tines fea­ture, you’ll be able to com­bine sev­eral tasks (like shut­ting the lights, set­ting an alarm, and ac­ti­vat­ing your se­cu­rity sys­tem) with a sin­gle phrase. It even rec­og­nizes your voice over the other peo­ple in your home. With Siri, com­mands are is­lands unto them­selves, while Google As­sis­tant is prac­ti­cally like talk­ing to an ac­tual per­son.

A smarter cam­era lens

It was just a year ago when As­sis­tant was lim­ited to Pixel phones and Google Home, and now it’s every­where: head­phones, watches, speak­ers, not to men­tion hun­dreds of mil­lions of An­droid phones.

And now Google is branch­ing out be­yond sim­ple voice com­mands. Ex­clu­sive to the Pixel phones (at

least for now) is a new app called Google Lens, and it has the po­ten­tial to be just as in­stru­men­tal to Google’s AI push, if not more so. A com­bi­na­tion of aug­mented real­ity and ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence, Google Lens uses your phone’s cam­era to iden­tify build­ings or flow­ers, scan and store phone num­bers, even in­put Wi-Fi pass­words, all with­out need­ing to jump around to var­i­ous apps.

This isn’t a fancy box for Google As­sis­tant, it’s a whole new set of skills. Ap­ple doesn’t have any­thing close to this type of func­tion­al­ity, and Google is set to be­gin ship­ping it in a few weeks. If it’s as fast as ac­cu­rate as it is in Google’s de­mos, it will be noth­ing less than a game-charger for search.

Big beau­ti­ful brain

Google is in a unique po­si­tion to ex­cel in the AI space. Where Ap­ple needs to keep wow­ing us with drool-

wor­thy hard­ware to get no­ticed, Google has taken a util­i­tar­ian ap­proach to its de­sign, bank­ing on AI to drive the ex­pe­ri­ence. The Pixel 2 isn’t as pretty as the iPhone X or even the iPhone 8 for that mat­ter, but Google is sell­ing brains be­fore beauty.

In its first year, Google As­sis­tant has ad­vanced fur­ther than Siri has in the past seven. And it’s get­ting smarter ev­ery day. Not only is it ba­si­cally on ev­ery phone that ships (in­clud­ing iPhones), but it’s in our homes, our cars, on our wrists, gath­er­ing in­for­ma­tion and learn­ing how to bet­ter re­spond to our needs. And with Google Lens, there’s no telling how in­tel­li­gent it will be this time next year.

Google might never de­sign a phone that’s as beau­ti­ful as iPhone X. But one thing is for sure: It’s closer than Ap­ple is to mak­ing one that’s smarter than a Pixel.

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