Will Google’s Mobile Search AI Product Rival Apple’s Siri?

Amit Singhal GoogleAmit Singhal, Google Fellow and SVP of Search, spoke with Bloomberg West this week about the future of search, specifically related to mobile and the Knowledge Graph. As Google strives to bring actual knowledge into search and create a more intuitive user experience, rumors and speculation abound about Google’s artificial intelligence projects and possible product launches as early as this year.

Singhal’s interview comes just days after TechCrunch credited an anonymous source for revealing a potential Siri competitor on its way out of Mountain View, possibly in the fourth quarter of this year. Dubbed “Assistant,” the mobile, voice-centered “Do-engine” being spearheaded by Singhal and the Android team would help users accomplish real-life goals through a knowledge database with a personalization layer in a format that a computer can understand.

“When you talk about mobile information, the two things that you need to remember is that it is hard to type on a mobile phone and the screen real estate is limited. Google has built wide search capabilities into mobile search for years and that platform is evolving very well,” Singhal told Bloomberg. “But with the limited screen real estate, what we are observing is that with infrastructure like Knowledge Graph, we can give succinct answers to user questions, which are far more critical when you have limited screen real estate like mobile. So we are seeing our evolution into Knowledge Graph into one of the key platforms for mobile search.”

Comparisons to Apple’s natural language voice recognition app and search tool Siri aren’t unexpected, especially given Google’s acquisitions of speech synthesis company Phonetic Arts and Clever Sense, makers of the virtual personal assistant Alfred. To say it’s an answer to Apple’s voice assistant, though, discounts the fact that Google has been experimenting with futuristic voice, search, and AI applications for several years.

Google’s Director of Android OS User Experience Matias Duarte explained how their approach to AI differs and offered a few hints as to how a Google product may function In a Slashgear interview late last year:

“Our approach is more like Star Trek, right, Starship Enterprise; every piece of computing surface, everything is voice-aware. It’s not that there’s a personality, it doesn’t have a name, it’s just “Computer.” And you can talk to it and you can touch it, you can interact with it at the same time as you talk with it. It’s just another way to interface with the computer.”

At AndroidandMe.com, Taylor Wimberly shared an anonymous tip from a user claiming to have tried out an early release of this “Star Trek”-esque voice assistant, codenamed Majel. The tipster wrote:

“It’s definitely as good, or better, than Siri. At least on the tablet you can sort through different answers with these swipe-able trays. Like, if you say ‘show me the Statue of Liberty,’ it’ll automatically take you to Google Image results, but another tray beneath it might be its location on Google Maps and then another tray might have a Wikipedia page. It’s also pretty good at giving you succinct answers if you ask it a question. The UI is definitely more powerful than Siri’s, even if a little harder to navigate.”

Again, these are rumors and speculation, but piecing together Google’s acquisitions, discussions of the Knowledge Graph, and recent search/social initiatives like Google Plus and Google Search Plus Your World lends credence to the whispers. Additionally, Google’s newly implemented privacy policy combines user data across Google services and devices, moving us ever closer to Google’s serendiptious search and more integrated search, but one that doesn’t rely on the web indexing, information retrieval, and search results of today.

Were Google to launch a voice assistant based on a knowledge database on any scale comparable to their search engine, layered with user personalization, it might just leave Siri looking a relic.

Singhal also shared his outlook on mobile, which he said is “spreading like wildfire.”

“We are seeing mobile searches increase at a rapid pace, similar to the way we saw web search increase in the early days at Google,” he told Bloomberg. “We have seen at an exponential growth in mobile searches, especially in the developing world where mobile is going to be the first computer most citizens will own.”

This is in keeping with smartphone usage stats and mobile predictions recently released by Google, including:

  • The number of applications available in the Android Market have tripled from 150,000 last year to 450,000 this year.
  • More than 300 million devices now run on the Android platform, with 850,000 new device activations daily.
  • Mobile shoppers are buying: 20 percent buy daily; 14 percent buy weekly; and 29 percent buy monthly.

There are 101.3 million smartphone subscribers in the U.S., according to the latest comScore figures for January. Google’s Android is the top platform, with 48.6 percent market share (up 2.3 percent since December), while Apple has a 29.5 percent market share (up 1.4 percent).

Back in October, Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer hinted at a Siri rival coming out of their camp when he discussed Windows phones with John Battelle at Web 2.0 Summit.

“There are certainly some nice things Apple’s done with Siri, but some of the same things, we’ve been doing for a year and we’re already on our next generation,” Ballmer said. It wasn’t clear at the time (and still isn’t) to which Microsoft product Ballmer was referring, though it could have been their TellMe voice integration for Windows, XBox and Windows Phone.

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