"Computer: What is the Future of Voice Search?"

By Wesley Fenlon

It's no surprise that the nerdy bunch at Google love Star Trek. it's a little surprising that they're actually trying to build Star Trek's computer.

A few short years ago we were still interacting with our smartphones like Scotty in Star Trek IV. "Computer? ... Computer? Hello computer." We wanted to talk to them, rather than type on their cramped screens, but they couldn't say anything back. Now things are different: Both Apple and Google are prioritizing systems that can listen, understand natural language, and talk back. And while Apple has given Siri a name and identity, Google's voice search doesn't have a catchy name. It's just Voice Search.

Someday, they want it to be the Star Trek computer. How's that for an identity? Majel Barrett-Roddenberry's voice, which brought the computer systems to life in Star Trek--and The Next Generation and basically every other Star Trek series and film--is probably the most iconic vocal representation of a computer in history. If Google wants to build the definitive computer that responds to natural language with articulate responses, what else could they possibly shoot for?

Image credit: Paramount

Of course, it's easy to use a sci-fi touchstone like Star Trek's computer system to get people excited; it's another thing altogether to actually try to build one. Slate's Farhad Manjoo has traced Google's Star Trek computer obsession back to 2010, when they were first hyping up voice search. Since then, Star Trek has consistently been a talking point, but it took awhile for him to realize just how serious they were:

" 'The Star Trek computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we're building,' Singhal told me. 'It is the ideal that we're aiming to build—the ideal version done realistically.' He added that the search team does refer to Star Trek internally when they’re discussing how to improve the search engine. 'It comes up often,' Singhal said. 'For instance, we might say, ‘Captain Kirk never pulled out a keyboard to ask a question.’ So in that way it becomes one of the design principles—we see that because the Star Trek computer actively relies on speech, if we want to do that we need to work to push the barrier of speech recognition and machine understanding.' "

Google's Star Trek dream obviously applies to voice search, but it applies to text-based inputs, too. You can see Google's desire to provide answers, rather than links, in its Knowledge Graph, which will give you definitions of words, convert ounces to gallons, or recognize a celebrity name and give you their fact sheet. Google Now offers a text-based version of their end goal--providing information without users explicitly asking for it.

For voice, natural langauge recognition is still a huge obstacle. And the questions people ask offer an immense challenge, too--an amazing 16 percent of Google queries are new every day. Google has to know more. That's a given. But the search engine's designers have to find new ways to understand and answer more questions, especially so that it can deal with open-ended queries like "Why is my best friend sad?"

Check out Slate's full article for more from Google's Amit Singhal on the future of search.