Google Now: Siri Killer or Cyber Stalker?

Posted by · July 2, 2012 2:59 pm

Google Now virtual assistantWhile the Nexus 7 and Nexus Q devices in many ways stole the show at Google I/O, something just as exciting was also happening in the Web giant’s software wing during last week’s developer conference. As Google prepares to launch Android 4.1, also known as Jelly Bean, in the next couple weeks, the company has been investing heavily in the next generation of search. And during the conference, Google unveiled the product of its investment.

Known as Google Now, the new feature of the Android OS is purported to tell users what they want to know before they even have to ask. By swiping the screen or tapping the search box on an Android-powered smartphone or tablet, users allow Google Now to combine their location information and the time of day to give helpful recommendations (in the form of “Cards”), including alternative commute routes, restaurant suggestions, weather updates, and other user-centric information.

“It tells you today’s weather before you start your day, how much traffic to expect before you leave for work, when the next train will arrive as you’re standing on the platform, or your favorite team’s score while they’re playing,” Google explains. “And the best part? All of this happens automatically. Cards appear throughout the day at the moment you need them.”

The kicker: As users continue to ask Google Now for assistance, the “smarter” the application gets at knowing what “Cards” they need to see. For example, if a user activates Google Now every morning on the way to work, it will use the time of day and location to immediately help that user find the fastest way to work.

Take a look at the video below for a closer look:

Even without a hint like the one in the article’s title, Google Now is clearly a response to Apple’s own mobile virtual assistant—Siri. In fact, after getting some time to try out the new Android feature, many critics are saying that Google Now far outranks Siri.

Steve Kovach of Business Insider observes:

I’ve been using Jelly Bean on a Galaxy Nexus and Nexus 7 for the last few days. And I can say Google Now is a lot more impressive than Siri. Google Now fills in all the gaps left by Siri, and does pretty much everything else a whole lot better. This is how search should work on mobile devices.

Echoing that sentiment, Shawn Ingram of the blog Gotta Be Mobile, adds:

The new service looks like it can best Siri in a few ways, especially since users don’t actually need to ask the feature to provide information. The information will just appear based on the time and location, though users should still have the ability to ask Google Now for specific information. We can see Google Now being more useful to many people…[however,] it likely isn’t a reason to make iPhone users switch to Android.

And finally, after examining Google Now’s features, Venture Beat’s Tom Cheredar concludes:

Siri certainly offers all these things [reminders, recommendations, voice controlled web searches, etc.], but you have to work to see all the same information that Google Now seems to provide in one easy stream. The same is true when you use Google Now to do a voice search. You get very specific search results along with a stream of useful information related to it.

Notwithstanding how clearly Google Now distinguishes itself from its Apple counterpart, still others are concerned about the inherent “creepiness” of Google’s new virtual assistant, leading them to conclude that Siri is better precisely because it’s not as “advanced.” While the information Google Now provides may be more useful, diverse, and readily accessible than that made available by Siri, the question that must now be addressed, says The Atlantic Wire’s Rebecca Greenfield, is this: “How much do we want our computers to know about us?”

Recalling the same examples that Kovach gives to justify his “With Google Now, Android Puts Apple’s Siri To Shame” headline, Greenfield suggests most people aren’t going to be interested in having a “creepy bot” know everything about them, monitor their activity, and predict their needs. She continues:

In the digital personal assistant world, it’s not human-like qualities—a.k.a. the uncanny valley—that makes these programs creepy, but rather the kind of information they have. That Google Now knows about us in a more than Google-search-able way makes the service feel like an intrusion. To be sure, Siri knows things, too. And it even talks (and jokes) like a human. But, Siri does not take note of our habits, like some weird stalker friend. We don’t have an aversion to the Apple version because it still has a robot brain. Google Now, on the other hand, not only has a human brain, it has a nosy omniscient one. That, we find creepy. And considering all the privacy issues Google has gotten into as of late, we doubt we’re alone here.

Since this appears to be the trajectory that Google, Apple, and even Facebook are on, what’s more important than fighting over which virtual assistant puts all other virtual assistants to shame is answering this fundamental question that Greenfield poses. While the increased convenience that features like Siri and Google Now offer their users is no doubt impressive, one can’t help but wonder at what point users will say “enough is enough” to the tradeoff between autonomy and efficiency.

For more on the Google Now virtual assistant…