I spent this past weekend with a delightful houseguest who was cooperative, helpful and cheery, no matter how many inane things I asked her to do. She had a "Jeopardy" champion's command of obscure facts and didn't demand constant entertaining.
In fact, I didn't even have to feed her: She was Google Now, a virtual assistant on Google's new flagship Moto X smartphone. And I was troubled to find that she could come close to putting my human companions to shame.
Technology companies have collectively set themselves on a mission to make technology "more human" -- meaning more responsive to us, more receptive to our natural cues and more crucial to our everyday lives -- and talkative virtual assistants like Google Now and Siri have been at the forefront of this trend. They talk to us, call us by name and know what we like.
Yet the most recent version of Google's voice-controlled assistant, which can speak and be spoken to almost like to a person, without any tapping of a screen, is the clearest embodiment to date of what Silicon Valley's "humanizing" mandate will yield and what might result from creating technology that manages to seamlessly stand in for people.
Thanks to software that's smarter and chattier, the smartphone is closer than ever to becoming a conversational partner, and even supplanting the conversations we'd otherwise have with people. Google is not only encouraging us to use its service over other apps, but it's effectively making it possible to use Google over the people we know.
The Moto X I've been carrying around since last week touts a feature dubbed "touchless control" that allows its owner to boss around Google's artificially intelligent digital assistant just by speaking to it. The smartphone is programmed to listen for a person's voice at all times, and, when summoned with the keyword "OK Google Now," can answer all manner of questions, such as how to get to the airport, whether to wear a sweater tonight, who directed "Blue Velvet" or the number of kroner to the dollar.
Over the weekend -- in the kitchen, the car and at the dinner table -- I was unsettled by how much easier I found it to pose certain questions to Google Now rather than ask my own fiancé.
While the phone was always listening, ready to jump into action and answer any query, my fiancé would do other things besides waiting for the sound of my voice. Several minutes of pestering -- "Matt, how many tablespoons are in a cup? Matt? Can you hear me? Do you know how many tablespoons there are in a cup?" -- became "OK Google Now, how many tablespoons are there in a cup?" While Google Now can answer "anything with a right or wrong answer," according to a Motorola spokesperson, my fiancé's command of world populations, exchange rates, Motown singers and Chinese idiomatic expressions is hit-or-miss. Why bother him when I could more quickly get the answer from the Moto X?
I'm hardly about to ditch my fiancé for dinner so I can whisper sweet nothings to Google Now. And yet, the assistant's more human-like interface and clever responses could be the precursor to an increasingly fierce battle between people and apps for others' attention -- and even, perhaps, affections.
As Stanford University professor Clifford Nass noted in an interview this past spring, technology that talks back can, because of the way our brains are wired, quickly expand to occupy a much more intimate and significant place in our lives.
"When we encounter technology that speaks and listens, the brain says 'whoa, this is a person,' because up until now, in history, the only things that had a voice were people," Nass explained. "As technologies become more competent and as they speak like us -- as they use words and phrases the way we do -- we will see people responding much more socially and much more powerfully to technologies. There is no question that we will see much more tight reactions to technology. We'll feel a much more emotional attachment to technology."
Silicon Valley is steadily removing barriers between us and its offerings, and in turn we're steadily increasing our reliance on what they peddle. Compare the ease with which we can consult Google Now with the now arduous-seeming process of Googling anything. Three years ago, we had to fish out our phone, unlock the screen, open an app, type in a keyword, then click on a link to a page that would, hopefully deliver the desired answer. Now, we can just speak: We can consult apps in precisely the same manner as we would consult a friend and for some of the same questions -- only more efficiently.
Some might argue that Google Now is merely a timesaver, and that it matters little if we direct our mundane questions about the weather or driving directions to a machine. But the precedent it sets is worth probing, especially as history shows tech companies rarely decide their automation of our lives has gone far enough. It doesn't take a huge leap of the imagination to see how the small talk that we outsource to our phones today could turn into deeper conversations tomorrow. Nadav Gur, CEO and co-founder of Desti, has noted that the software powering his virtual travel assistant app could feasibly be repurposed to build a dating coach that analyzes correspondences to offer advice to the lovelorn. Google Now can already tell us if we're about to be late for a meeting, and Amazon.com can recommend books better than many close friends.
Google Now presently spares us from making idle chitchat about the weather. Perhaps next, when your spouse asks at dinner about your day, you'll direct it deliver a digest. When you ask her why she's angry, her own Google Now will summarize for you. Do you love me? Google Now might eventually answer that, too. As we treat our gadgets more like people, we may also treat our people more like gadgets.