Smartphones will be talking to their users and the tech giants Google and Apple are determined to have the edge
Google has predicted its dominant web search engine will mean it will beat Apple in the race to turn the smartphone and other devices into intelligent, voice-controlled personal assistants.
The rival technology giants are investing hundreds of millions of dollars in their competing services, Google Now and Siri, and the field is expected to be a major battleground for their mobile operating systems, Android and iOS.
Both have teams of engineers working to crack the problems of making machines understand complex spoken questions and answer them in natural sentences. Google has said its goal is to create a service comparable to the computer of the Starship Enterprise in Star Trek that will become a new way to interact with the web and myriad other apps.
Google Now aims to anticipate what people will want from their smartphone by reading their calendar and emails, and analysing their location. On an overseas trip it will serve up flight information based on booking confirmation emails.
Scott Huffman, the Google engineering director leading the effort, said the company had a headstart on its competition because the way it calculates the rankings of search results give its systems an understanding of the meaning of how language is used in the real world.
He said: “The reason we feel pretty good in terms of competition is because what we’re seeing and everything we’re building today is built on top of the foundation of core web search rankings.
“If I say, ‘Show me the Eiffel Tower,’ I want pictures of the Eiffel Tower but, if I say, ‘Show me the money,’ I don’t want pictures because I’m talking about the line from the Jerry Maguire movie. Google actually knows that because of web rankings telling us.”
Google Glass, the company’s wearable device which packs the capabilities of a smartphone into spectacles that allow hands-free operation, is among the first of a new generation of mobile technology it hopes will spur people to talk to its services. Google Now will also target smart watches, cars and the living room, allowing people to ask the television questions.
Apple has apparently recognised Google’s advantage. This month it paid more than $US200m (£122m) to acquire Topsy, a start-up focused on finding patterns in the 500m tweets posted on Twitter every day.
Observers, including Nick Halstead, chief executive of Topsy’s British rival DataSift, have speculated that Apple will use the language analysis technology to improve Siri’s understanding of queries before it processes them or delegates them to third-party web services. It uses Microsoft Bing for web searches, for instance.
Mr Huffman said: “It does feel like a bit of a race. For us the race part often has a lot to do with talent, a little more than finding a start-up with a magic idea that we have to buy before anyone else. It’s more about the engineering talent in this being in a lot of demand.”
But as well as recruiting the best software engineers, Google has been forced to implement a cultural shift towards accepting there are certain things about the real world that cannot be boiled down to an algorithm. It has assembled a team dedicated to cataloguing information and verifying information so Google Now can answer questions directly rather than provide a list of relevant web links as in a traditional web search.
Mr Huffman said: “Where the humans come in is identifying which sources of data we should use. The other area is verifying data so that when people ask Google a question like, ‘How old is Tom Cruise?’ we’ve got the correct answer.
“We have had to go over a cultural bump where we accepted there are cases you need human validation if we’re going to answer questions directly.”
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