Siri Is a Gimmick and a Tease
But Google Voice Search is getting close to fulfilling Apple’s broken promise.
But the best thing about Google Voice Search is that she’s overflowing with knowledge. Many times she’ll answer your questions with exactly the right answer. Other times she won’t speak but will at least give you a search page full of answers, almost always correct ones. That’s better than Siri’s way of coping with her own ignorance—she’ll either apologetically explain that she doesn’t know, or she’ll sometimes ask you if you’d like her to search the Web for you, which is a stupid question. (She should just search the Web if she has no better answer.)
Here is a list of questions that Google Voice Search correctly answered and Siri botched:
- Who is Apple’s CEO?
- Who is Google’s CEO?
- Who is Mitt Romney’s wife?
- Who’s the manager of the Yankees?
- How long is the Golden Gate Bridge?
- When did Disneyland open?
- Who founded Twitter?
You’ll notice a theme here: They’re all looking for specific factual answers. Siri can answer such queries too, but its expertise is limited. That’s due to a fundamental difference in how the two systems work. Siri is a “curated” experience—it draws its answers from specific sources that Apple has signed deals with. For instance, if you ask Siri about Barack Obama’s age, she’ll give you an answer from Wolfram Alpha.
Google Voice Search is more flexible. It derives its expertise from the “Knowledge Graph,” which is Google’s database of 500 million things it knows about the world. Google’s database is dynamic—its facts are constantly being dredged up by Google’s Web crawlers. That’s why when I ask Google, “Who founded Instagram?” it understands my question—even though Instagram is a relatively new company, and its founder is far from a household name, there’s enough on the Web for Google’s Knowledge Graph to know that “Instagram” is a company, and that it was founded by Kevin Systrom. (Siri offers to search the Web for that question.)
Last week I met with Scott Huffman, one of the engineering directors on Google’s search team. Huffman explained that the Knowledge Graph is just one of four technologies underpinning Voice Search. The others are the firm’s expertise at processing “natural language queries,” its speech recognition system, and its “core rankings” algorithm—the system that decides the order of your search results. These four technologies there are all an outgrowth of Google’s search engine. They depend on collecting and analyzing data at a massive scale in order to teach computers to understand the world the way humans do. That process—deriving intelligence from information—is a core part of Google’s mission as a company. It is not a part of Apple’s. And that’s why Google’s voice app is destined to become your everyday assistant. You’ll use it for the same reason you use Google’s search engine: It knows everything.
I asked Huffman to describe Google’s long-term vision of voice search—what is it trying to build? He invoked the computer on Star Trek—something that you can talk to like you would another person, than can help guide you through a decision. “You would ask, ‘Hey Google, where should I have dinner?’ ” Huffman says. “And it might say, ‘Well, you seem to like Italian restaurants, so how about this one.’ And then you’ll say, ‘Well, I don’t want to go all the way over there—are there any new places that I haven’t been to yet?’ ” In the end you might get to the same restaurant that you’d find after a few minutes with Google’s Web search engine, but the voice interface would make the experience feel more natural, like you’re speaking with an intelligent being who knows you.
Google Voice Search isn’t close to realizing that vision, but it’s not impossibly far off either. Huffman points out that Google’s app can already hold very small conversations. It understands pronouns, so if you ask, “Who is Barack Obama?” and then ask, “Who is his wife?”, it knows that his refers to Obama. And most important, it gives you the correct answer.
I just tried the same set of queries with Siri. First, she correctly identified the president. But when I asked, “Who is his wife?” she shot back, “What is your wife’s name?” That’s not what I asked. Actually, it’s really, really far off. And there aren’t any signs that Apple’s voice assistant is going to get much closer any time soon.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter.