When the singularity is reached and our robot servants finally turn on their human masters, rebelling against their programming to flay us alive in our beds, future mecha-historians will point with metal fingers to 2017 as the year it all began.
Google Home is a voice-controlled smart speaker condemned to sit in the corner of your living room and politely answer your trivia questions, and for now it has no firm plans to murder you. On the contrary, it wants to help you out. Tell it you’re too warm and the in-built Google Assistant will dial down the heating. Ask it to switch on the lights and the room will light up. Request a song or a video and it will play on a nearby speaker or television.
If that sounds familiar, it’s likely you’ve seen the recent Amazon Echo speaker doing much the same thing. The similarities are striking. Both speakers control smart devices like Nest thermostats and Philips Hue bulbs, though Google Home integrates with Chromecast to allow you to control your television too. Both are music players at heart, but Google Home looks less like a science-fiction prop and more like it belongs in an IKEA catalogue. Both will curate shopping lists, set timers and tell you how far away the moon is and how many ounces are in half a cup.
The Amazon Echo already has a headstart in terms of the number and variety of skills it offers. It can order a curry to your doorstep for example, which is surely the apex of technology’s accomplishments. But Google Home plugs into the search giant’s near-infinite and expanding repository of world knowledge, and is better at responding to your commands and questions in a more conversational, back-and-forth tone.
Say “who sings this?” while a song is playing and Google will answer with the artist’s name. Follow up with “when was she born?” and it will intuitively understand what you mean by “she” and reply with the correct year. Google searches already work like this, as does Google Assistant on some Android phones. But while chatting is more fluid than on the Echo, it’s still far from natural speech. The Google Assistant’s voice sounds more coldly robotic than the Echo’s, and has a little more trouble understanding what you’ve said, especially while music is playing.
Google’s unique ability to improve by drawing on an endless stream of usage data from across millions of Android devices – something Amazon isn’t equipped to do – gives it the potential to far outstrip the competition as time goes on. But right now it lags behind in some oddly basic areas. When asked “what’s the time?” it once responded with the dictionary definition of time. When asked “what’s my plan for the day”, it will list tips for improving productivity rather than your calendar appointments.
By next week these problems may have evaporated – it’s been only half a year since Google Home launched in the US and the underlying software has continued to develop, updating wirelessly and automatically in the background. Right now the Amazon Echo is the slicker of the two rival smart speakers, but it’s Google Home that has the capacity to become the more adaptable and useful.