Google Assistant: The Voice of the Internet

Through human-like interactions, voice assistants have transformed our internet use

Google Home
The Google Home smart speaker. google-home-google-assistant by Stratageme.com, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

In November 2016, tech monolith Google officially launched their smart speaker, the Google Home, powered by their artificial intelligence endeavour, the Google Virtual Assistant. Google Assistant invites a whole new level of interaction with websites and devices, from simple voice commands, to the ability to have full blown conversations with the artificial intelligence (AI).

Despite the wide range of competitors, Google Assistant has found immense success thanks to the extensive pre-existing Google user base, as well as its opportunity for integration into other software, such as third-party phones and smart speakers.

The rise of artificial intelligence interaction has been transformative to the internet in many areas; voice-activated software has raised many privacy concerns, due to its intrusive ‘always listening’ nature, and has led to the need for increased privacy regulation. Culturally, AI and voice control has transformed the way we can interact with the internet, bringing the stuff of science fiction to life. Verbal AI interaction has transformed the way we socialise, allowing for deeper interaction with the internet itself, with two-way conversations and personified voice assistants.

Google Home
The Google Home smart speaker. Google Home tech by ndb_photos, CC BY-SA 2.0

History

Google Assistant is an online virtual assistant, controlled verbally and powered by artificial intelligence. Rather than having one dedicated platform, the assistant is incorporated throughout Google’s many different services, and is integrated into many Samsung phones, however it is primarily advertised for its use in the Google Home smart speaker.

The introduction of voice-searching with Google stems back almost a decade, to the introduction of Google Voice Search on Android phones and Google Chrome in 2011. Although this feature is seen as standard today, at the time it was an abundant advancement of technology; seen through the launch’s official Google blog post.

Google’s next advancement in voice technology came bundled inside of Google Now, an information delivery software tailored to the user, based off their common online actions. It is succinctly described in Kylie Jarret’s 2014 text, A Database of Intention, as a software that ‘draws on data of each user’s past behaviour along with aggregated generic data to propose a future model [of internet use]’.

The official launch trailer for Google Now on IOS demonstrates its key features:

Users were also now able to verbally ask Google questions and get spoken responses, as well as being able to ask Google to do tasks such as create calendar events. Despite its conversation capabilities being severely limited, Google Now was a step in the right direction, and formed the basis for today’s Google Assistant.

Then, in 2016, Google Virtual Assistant was officially launched as a standalone artificial intelligence assistant. A more detailed breakdown of Google Assistants history is explored in this article by Mark Jansen:

Google Assistant: The Complete History of the Voice of Android.

History of Google Assistant Article

Transformative Effects

The rise and popularity of virtual assistants and voice control has undoubtably transformed the way we interact with the internet, and Google Assistant is at the forefront of this. Amongst other factors, one key reason for Google Assistant’s popularity and prominence is Google’s pre-existing success.

In 2007, ‘the various Google sites, including its search engine [were] among the most popular sites on the web’ (Alexander, 2008), and today they boast over 4 billion users across their platforms. As the assistant is integrated into almost every Google platform, it is easily available to all users – this unique situation has allowed the Virtual Assistant to flourish, and consequently, transform our internet use.

Beyond this, the human-like interactions available through the assistant have also served to transform our internet use – what was once achieved through a simple search can now be achieved by verbally asking Google itself, and having it reply to you in a two-way conversation.

The advancement of AI has also allowed us to now interact with the internet on a deeper level, going as far as introducing the capacity for users to form emotional bonds with the software. Reportedly, ‘their speech makes us treat them as if they had a mind. These secretarial companions may be faux-conscious non-persons, but their words give them personality and social presence’ (Shulevitz, 2018). This concept is further explored in this excellent article from Empathetic AI company Sensum:

Alexa, Hug Me: Exploring Human-Machine Emotional Relations

Human - Machine Emotional Relations Article

However, Google Assistant is not without its issues; voice assistants severely marginalise users who are deaf, hard of hearing, or with speech impediments, due to its reliance on auditory interaction and verbal control. Moreover, voice-activated software is notoriously discriminatory, and frequently struggles to understand accents beyond the ‘default’ American accent of their developers. This can be seen through this entertaining video,  in which a Scottish man tries to interact with 3 popular smart speakers:

Business Model

The Google Virtual Assistant is an endeavour of Google, who is owned by parent company Alphabet. The Assistant’s business model has two key stems; the first being its integration across all of Google’s platforms, and the other its role as the power being Google’s smart speaker, the Google Home.

Of these two models, the Google Home is the most lucrative from a monetary perspective, as users must specifically purchase the Google Home to use its functionality, whereas the Virtual Assistant’s integration into Google’s other sites can be accessed free of charge.

However, there is another sly opportunity for Google to benefit from its own voice assistant – through the possibility of search result manipulation. As explored in Sofia Noble’s text A Society, Searching, ‘information monopolies such as Google have the ability to prioritise web search results on the basis of a variety of topics, such as promoting their own business interests over those of competitors,’ (2018).

Although a 2013 investigation by America’s Federal Trade Commission (FTC) found ‘no evidence that Google was favouring its own search results and disfavouring those of its competitors’ (Rosen, 2013, p.1004), Google itself has acknowledged the possibility:

Scholars funded by Google took the position that regardless of the outcome of the investigation, the FTC could not enjoin Google from favouring its own search results because Google’s search algorithm is a form of corporate speech, fully protected by the First Amendment.
     – Rosen, 2013, p.1004

Therefore, although morally questionable, a tampering of search results to benefit Google itself is possible, and the popularity of Google Assistant increases their capacity to do something of this nature.

Google also drastically expanded its Virtual Assistant user base through having the Assistant installed by default on most Android phones. Due to the popularity of Android smartphones, this moved served to vastly boost their numbers; as of January 2019, it was reported that Google Assistant was installed on over 1 billion devices, compared to the 100 million of competitor Amazon Alexa.

According to Manuel Bronstein, vice president of Google Assistant, ‘the largest footprint right now is on phones. On Android devices, we have a very, very large footprint,’ estimating that ‘the vast majority’ of the 1 billion installations are from Android devices (Bohn, 2019).

Google Pixel with Assistant
Android Assistant on the Google Pixel XL smartphone by pestoverde, CC BY 2.0

Role in the Industry

Within the industry, Google Virtual Assistant is a leading artificial-intelligence assistant, whose popularity has greatly benefitted from being a subsidiary of Google itself. As aforementioned, beyond other Google platforms, the Virtual Assistant is also available on most Android smartphones, as well as other smart speakers from prominent brands, including:

Google Assistant has two key competitors; Amazon Alexa, and Apple’s Siri. Both of these applications serve the same purposes as Google Assistant, and are controlled verbally.

Of these two, Alexa is the more successful, and is primarily distributed through the form of smart speakers. Comparatively, Siri began as an AI integrated into Apple’s smartphones, and has only recently expanded into the more widely accessible smart speakers. However, Google Assistant has pulled ahead as a market leader due to its popularity on both smartphones and speakers, rather than the competitor’s single popular platform.

Google’s extensive ecosystem created a simple supply chain for the Virtual Assistant; any searches conducted are done so through Google, and the system can link to Google Maps, Google Calendar, Chromecast, Google Home, Gmail, and others. External software can also be accessed, such as music streaming software Spotify, but the system primarily stays within the Google ecosystem.

Spotify on Google Home
Spotify on Google Home. Image from Matt Elliott, All rights reserved.

As Google is an international organisation, their products and services are held to the laws of each country it operates in, leading to a range of different privacy and product laws for the Google Assistant. However, the product is also held to Google’s Privacy Policy, which applies to all Google products and services, as well as the Assistant’s own set of internal regulations.

Google’s in-depth FAQ about Google Assistant privacy can be found here, however it is imperative to note that this information is coming from Google itself, allowing for bias and selective truth – thus, it must be read through a critical lens.

Due to the general nature of Google Assistant, users are widespread and form an extensive and diverse group. Similar to Google itself, there is no one specific demographic who uses the application, and it rather can be used by any person in their every day life.

Ecosystem Map

Google Assistant Ecosystem Map
Google Assistant Ecosystem Map. By Hannah McCormack, All rights reserved.

The Transformation

The popularity of Google Assistant and other similar applications has served to greatly transform the way we use the internet, including socially, politically, and culturally. As aforementioned, the social interactivity the artificial intelligence provides creates an entirely new way to use the internet, allowing users to truly communicate with the voice of the internet.

Moreover, artificial intelligence systems have also created a new culture of internet interaction, and served to normalise users forming emotional bonds with their virtual assistants.

However, the rise to popularity of these smart devices has also led to a significant political transformation to the way we approach privacy concerns. Due to the ‘always listening’ nature of these devices, as well as the extreme level of personal data the Google Assistant is privy to ensures that a level of privacy regulation is required.

Jeffrey Rosen theorises what a future of Google without regulation could look like: ‘an “evil” Google, armed with the vast data it controls, could pose grave threats to constitutional values like privacy and free speech and could generally threaten innovation around the world’ (2013, p.1002). Thus, an onus has been put on both local government and Google itself to institute extensive privacy policies in order to protect the user, and an overall awareness has been raised amongst internet users as the sheer amount of personal data organisations are in possession of.

In Conclusion

The rise of Google Assistant has immensely transformed the way we interact with the internet, thanks to the high level of interaction and conversation users are now able to have with the internet itself.

In the past, the internet was simply an online database to be clicked on, whereas thanks to Google Assistant and other artificial intelligence powered assistants, the internet can now be seen as a personified entity to be interacted with on a personal level.

However, it has also transformed the way we approach privacy with smart speakers and the internet as a whole, leading to strict privacy regulations and policy. Overall, the Google Assistant is a deeply impactful internet transformation, which has ultimately altered the way we interact with the internet as a whole.

 

References

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About Hannah McCormack 4 Articles
Second year Design Computing student at University of Sydney.