“Google” is a great name. Twenty years ago it was a playful, made-up word (a riff on “googol,” which is the number 1 followed by 100 zeros). Today it’s in the dictionary, lowercase and everything. Hats off to Larry and Sergey for expanding the lexicon. But it’s time to let Google go.
Not the company — just the maddening insistence on including the word “Google” in the naming schemes for too many of its products. We’ve already witnessed the unfortunately named Google Play Music All Access, Google Videos, and Google+, among many others. The latest victim of this stubborn branding strategy is the company’s digital assistant. On Tuesday, Google unveiled a new AI that will be embedded in upcoming hardware products aimed at toppling Apple’s iPhone (the Pixel) and Amazon’s Echo (Google Home). The soon-to-be-household name for the company’s bold bet on artificial intelligence is … Google Assistant.
This is problematic for a few reasons. Though Google is touting its Pixel smartphone as the first device to feature Google Assistant, older Android phones and the company’s search app have been using the assistant’s features for a while now. My 2014 Moto X phone running Lollipop, which does not have Assistant, is perfectly capable of responding to voice queries like, “Show me my photos from last October,” and, “Play the Lumineers,” which the company touted as headlining features of the new Pixel smartphone. Another Pixel feature, the ability to scan the words currently on its screen and pull up contextually relevant information (like directions to a restaurant mentioned in a text message), used to be called Now on Tap and was a primary selling point of Android’s Marshmallow OS in 2015. Google Assistant isn’t so much a new innovation as a repackaging of Google’s disparate AI efforts over the past couple of years, which were never given an official moniker (though Google Now, the company’s predictive assistant, is still floating nebulously apart).
It’s not a cardinal sin to hype a new piece of hardware to tout old Android features — Apple’s been doing that for years. And it’s smart of Google to try to unite its digital assistant features under a single banner. But that banner needs to be much catchier than “Google Assistant.” The very best tech marketing makes the gap between what we hold in our hands and the future feel like magic. “Google Assistant,” in its matter-of-fact blandness, stamps out whatever our imaginations might have conjured. That’s a problem when the company is planning a big marketing campaign around its new Assistant-powered hardware products. (And at a time when people are becoming remarkably — even weirdly — attached to their Echoes. Excuse me, Alexa.)
More importantly, Google and all its competitors are still in the early stages of trying to normalize human-AI interactions. That’s easier to do when a user feels like they’re talking to a person and not a cog in an omnipresent data goliath. Siri’s jokes are scripted, obviously, but they’re also ice-breakers between person and machine. Use the assistant as a goof today, and maybe you’ll use it to plan your itinerary tomorrow. “The emotional part of the interaction is actually the easiest to do because we humans have such a tendency to project humanity onto things that behave a little bit like a human,” Pedro Domingos, a computer science professor at the University of Washington, told me earlier this year when we spoke about Siri’s origins and advancements. “We treat [computers] as if they’re other human beings.”
Google has its reasons for keeping Google Assistant boring. Today’s AI assistants are too dumb to hold sustained conversations, read emotions, or change their tone based on the person they’re talking to (though all those features are part of Google’s product road map). The company’s former head of search, Amit Singhal, told me last year that giving Google’s digital assistant a human persona would set up false expectations about its capabilities for users. “I’m not saying personality shouldn’t come, but the science to get that right doesn’t fully exist,” he said.
That’s a fair perspective and in some ways a noble one in an industry where companies trip over themselves to sell us a digital bill of goods. But if Google plans to birth the AI overlord to rule … er, assist us all, it’ll have to name her (or him!) at some point.