Google’s Latest Updates to Its Assistant Are Creepy—and Exactly What We Asked For

Eliminating unnecessary human interaction was probably inevitable

At Google's annual developers conference this week, Google CEO Sundar Pichai announced updates for Google Assistant. Getty Images
Headshot of Marty Swant

The Google Assistant might finally jump ahead of Amazon’s Alexa in the race for user-friendly (if not potentially creepy) artificial intelligence.

At its annual developer conference this week in California, Google announced the latest update to Assistant, including six additional voices, both male and female.

Later this year, Google Assistant will be able to call restaurants, hair salons and other places to make appointments and order on behalf of their owner. This announcement raised the hackles of industry watchdogs, calling out the ethical implications of such advanced technology. Bots sounding like humans is one thing; bots conducting human activities is, well, something else.

From the technological determinist point-of-view, this wasn’t just inevitable, but desired. We don’t want to call restaurants to order food, so we created Seamless. How much of a stretch is it, then, to want software that make reservations for us? Eliminating superfluous human interaction would, in theory, provide more time for meaningful interactions with loved ones.

“The amazing thing is that the assistant can actually understand the nuances of conversation,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said on stage from Google I/O.

The potential of near-human AI

Danielle Reubenstein, executive creative director at Possible Mobile, said she sees the potential of new features—such as adding more voices to make voice AI more inclusive, or helping to foster kids’ behaviors through Google’s new “Pretty Please” feature.

However, while making AI more human-like might be promising for anyone that would like something as friendly and useful as the assistant in the movie “Her,” there are also risks involved with computers mimicking human interactions—like making day-to-day interactions less personable, and therefore less human.

“Assistant Calling makes me nervous and excited,” Reubenstein said that Assistant Calling makes her “nervous and excited,” adding that it’s a “time saver,” but that we’re now “making robocalls to each other.”

“I do wonder when the person on the other end of the phone has a bad experience with a robocall from Google assistant, if Assistant isn’t unintentionally helping us make each other’s lives less enjoyable,” she added.

The future is filled with brands

Google also revealed a way for Assistant to display information on a smartphone screen or other display. Through hardware partners including Lenovo and JBL, Google and its partner brands will also be able to provide complementary visual information about a query. It might display a menu for a food brand, or show a map to provide turn-by-turn directions.

While this technology continues to march us forward into the future, what that future looks like is still a guess. What we do know: The brands will be there. For the debut of these new features, a number of brands are already on board, including Starbucks, Dunkin’ Donuts, Domino’s, Panera, 7-Eleven and Applebee’s.

Steve Hansen, chief technology officer at Rain, an agency that develops voice skills for brands, said he’s excited about how Canvas will allow new ways for brand to bring together visuals with their voice experiences.

“While these can still be voice-first experiences, they won’t be voice-only,” he said. “It’s that combination of voice plus screen which makes some experiences possible.”

Hansen said Assistant’s enhanced ability to understand a variety of users also makes talking to a computer an easier—and therefore more engrained—behavior.

The race to the perfect assistant

As voice assistants increasingly catch on with users, media companies and brands, tech giants like Amazon, Google, Microsoft, Apple and Samsung all have sought to increase marketshare through integrating voice AI into a variety of speakers, phones, cars and home devices. However, while Amazon was the first to get into living rooms with its Echo speaker, Google has been on its tail.

At several major tech conferences this year—the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, South by Southwest in Austin, and Mobile World Congress in Barcelona—Google pulled off massive, whimsical brand activations to show off its Google Home and Google Home Mini devices, simultaneously showcasing how the Assistant helps users in their everyday lives.

For the past few weeks, Google has been plastering walls of some New York City subway stations with suggestions to “Make Google Do It.” The question now is, will we let it?

@martyswant Marty Swant is a former technology staff writer for Adweek.