Google I/O: How Google Now Is Bringing Search Closer to Science Fiction

By Ryan Whitwam

Google Now is evolving into the artificially intelligent search app we've been dreaming about.

The heart of Google’s product line is search, and there can no longer be any doubt that Google Now is the future of the company's efforts. At the first day of Google I/O, the search giant cavorted itself like it was putting on a real developer conference. There were developer console updates, new tools, and APIs. Still, things came back to Google Now, and that’s no surprise.

The Search app on Android received an update, which was demoed on stage. Along with some new info cards, Google Now voice search gained a new capability -- it can schedule location and time-specific push reminders. Google Now understands natural language in ways that would have been impossible just a few years ago. Google’s data driven approach is desperately close to bringing the dream of a Star Trek computer to fruition.

It’s About The Graph

Google and Apple took two divergent approaches to designing a digital assistant. Apple started with a system that understood common phrases and reached out to a limited number of services and databases to complete actions. This meant Siri could do some neat things out of the box, but it relied on third-parties like Wolfram Alpha and Google to do it. It wasn't about search--it was a digital personal assistant first and foremost.

Google came at the problem of voice interaction from the opposite direction. For Google, it was about search from the start. Mountain View has been aggregating massive volumes of data in its Knowledge Graph, now the heart of Google search cards. Google simply knows a lot of things without going outside its own services. This is the foundation of Google Now.

Google started working on its voice input system years ago with Goog411, which was later shuttered after the company had the data it needed. That enabled raw voice input for searches. The next step was to recognize relevant queries in search history and return Knowledge Graph cards in advance. That's the magic of Google Now on the phone -- it anticipates your searches.

I will never forget how well Google Now seemed to know my schedule when I started using it less than a year ago. Because I had Google location reporting turned on, my device knew where I liked to go, what roads I take, and even guessed my home address accurately. The old line about Apple products is that they “just work.” Well, Google Now is the modern embodiment of that slogan.

The voice aspect of Google Now has continued to evolve, culminating with yesterday’s announcement of reminder support, and it’s incredibly robust with all that Google data backing it. Google Now became an assistant app just like Siri, but it took longer to reach that level of usefulness and it’s stronger for having made the journey.

Let’s take a look at these new Google Now additions and see how it works.

Google, Remind Me to Use This More

I’ve gotten in the habit of popping Google Now open almost every time I touch my phone. It took some time for it to sink in, but each update has made the list of cards more useful. The new card types are mostly based around media. From now on, Google will show you cards for new music, books, TV shows, and video games it thinks you might be interested in based on search history. If it lists that item in the Play Store, you’ll get a link to it.

I’ve already seen a few of these cards pop up, and it gives me yet another reason to check Now. If you’re not interested in one of these categories, they can be disabled individually in the settings.

Other new cards include real-time public transit updates, but only in select cities. This feature will give you more accurate information on commute times if you take the bus or train. Users in Japan get their very own feature (that I have yet to travel halfway around the world to test) that shows commuters alerts for the last train home.

In the voice assistant category, Google Now includes reminders, and this might be my favorite part of the search app. Because Google already knows where you live and work, there is almost no setup required to start using reminders. And Google Now already keeps track of your location by default, thus you don’t have additional battery drain when you start using location-specific reminders -- the phone is already keeping tabs on you.

To spin up a reminder, just say, “Remind me to.” Then say the activity, and choose a time or location. Saying "Google" also kicks you into voice mode from the search page. So you could say “Google, remind me to call mom when I get home.” The next time you arrive at home, a notification will appear and nag you to call your mother. Just swipe it away to dismiss, or hit the snooze button to be reminded later.

The locations don’t have to be places you frequent, though. You can say anything, like, “Remind me to buy grapes when I get to Super Target.” This is particularly interesting because Google reaches into its vast mapping data repository and takes a guess at which Super Target you mean. It was right in my case, but you can manually change the location if it chooses poorly.

You can also add time constraints to your reminders if that’s more convenient. Try, “Remind me to pay bills Friday afternoon.” It also takes into account vague times of day like afternoon and evening. It works perfectly in my testing. Google Now also accepts specific dates and times.

The only bummer with the reminders is that editing upcoming or snoozed entries requires you to open the Now settings, tap through two menus, and then select the reminder you want to delete. A better solution might have been to integrate with Keep, or list all upcoming reminders in cards.

On stage at Google I/O, we also saw a demo of features that are coming soon to Android, some of which are also working in Chrome. Google Now will be able to recognize fuzzy language in the context of past searches. Asking about a particular location, then asking how long it will take to get “there” pulls up the expected results. Google understands what “there” means in context -- or rather it will soon.

This Is Science Fiction

Long before Google Now was announced, one of the unofficial code names floated for the product was “Majel,” a reference to Majel Barrett who voiced Star Trek computers for decades. That’s a hint for what Google is building toward. The cache of data Google has gives it the best chance to brute force conversational voice interaction, and we’re finally starting to see that happen.

Knowledge Graph is about answers, not just links or data. That’s the right way to approach the problem, but it can’t work without the links and data backing everything up. Every new card Google adds to Now anticipates more searches you might want to make, and the way those cards are used helps shape how voice queries are interpreted. Google simply gets better the longer you use it.

Google’s voice search can only get smarter, and that’s nothing but good news. This kind of predictive voice search was science fiction until recently. We simply don't realize it because this is real life, and real life isn't supposed to be like Star Trek. See? And you thought Google I/O was going to be boring this year.