Learning to use a Google Home
Published: August 29, 2018
By: Greg Carannante
Remember when you wanted to do something and you actually had to do it yourself or ask someone to do it for you? Well, these days you can ask some thing to do it for you — and maybe never have to do it yourself ever again.
For instance, changing the channel on the TV. Some of us who still watch television go back to the days when that involved the now-unimaginable drudgery of dragging yourself up from your seat, walking over to the black-and-white set, turning the knob, adjusting the antenna and collapsing back onto your sofa (unless, of course, one of your kids sprawled on the floor was closer).
Now, you want to change a channel on your TV? Just press a button on your remote and say, “Watch Paw Patrol.” Want to go for a walk? “Hey, Siri, what’s the weather today?” Want to boil an egg? “OK, Google, set a timer for 10 minutes.”
Of course, this says nothing of the fact that every generation of kids that preceded us since the beginning of time never even had a TV, and let’s not even get into the tectonic shift wrought by the Internet. But still, the recent advances in voice-recognition technology are truly awesome — not in the diluted way the kids use the word but in the astonished sense that, for those of us who possess the perspective of decades, the future really is happening now. It’s an advent equivalent to the flying cars we’ve heard would be coming down the road all of our lives. (They’ve already started driving themselves, so flying’s probably not far behind, right?)
In our cars, or anywhere else, we’ve grown accustomed to using the iPhone’s Siri and her Android cousins as an extra pair of hands, or more importantly to answer the eternal questions: “What was the name of that actor in that movie?” and “What was the name of that movie?” (For us more mature smart-phoners, they’re also indispensable as a menu flashlight.)
But with the increasing popularity of Google Home and Amazon Echo, voice-activation technology has really started making itself at home. These smart speakers are becoming our disembodied digital servants, the microprocessing predecessors of the prophesied Age of Robots.
Echo had dominated the market up until the first quarter of this year, when Google outsold Amazon’s line for the first time, buoyed by the previous quarter’s reports that more than one Google Home device was sold every second — an estimated 7.5 million.
One even made its way into my home recently, and I’d like to tell you that the future has arrived fully assembled and that it was love at first command. Actually, it’s more like a tenuous courtship.
The jitters began during the device’s initial setup when the Google app I’d downloaded onto my iPhone asked me if I wanted “the full Google Assistant experience.” As alluring as that sounded, it required permitting access to and recording of my web and app activity and information about how I use my devices. I’d heard reports about these smart speakers eavesdropping on and recording conversations — and in one case even sending one inadvertently to a contact (“Open the hatch door, Hal”) — so I was a bit hesitant to plunge headlong into the world of Big Brother. It was like being on a first date and being unsure of how much of the real you to divulge.
After Google told me that without my consent my Assistant experience would be limited to things like web results and jokes, I relented. I mean, I have a teen-age boy in the house, so I surely don’t need a Google Assistant if I want to hear a joke.
Things got more flirty with the next step: teaching my Assistant to recognize my voice. Now, this sounds like it would go without saying, so to speak, until I came to this caveat: “A similar voice or recording might be able to access your personal results, too.” Uh-oh. Throwing caution to the web, I consented and was asked to say “OK, Google” and “Hey, Google” twice. I did, and my Assistant recorded how I said it. Unfortunately, as I’d soon discover, I didn’t.
Now it was Google’s turn. “Hi, I’m your Google Assistant here to help you throughout your day,” said each of the eight voice options — the subtle AI-giveaway being the emphasis on “your.” I was asked to choose one of the four female or four male voices — each with the accent of a Caucasian American. You’d think if they were giving you that many choices you’d at least get some diversity, but no Siri-like international selections were available.
I picked option No. 1, tapped “Continue” and heard my own personal Assistant speak to me for the first time. In a perky, pleasant female voice, she introduced herself and invited me to ask her to do something, starting with either “Hey, Google” or “OK, Google.” (Despite her perky, pleasant female voice, she apparently prefers to go by the gender-neutral name of Google.)
I started with, “Hey, Google, play some music.” Instantly a cool rock song I’d never heard before started playing. This was promising indeed — especially considering that when I first started listening to music, I had go to the turntable, pick up the record, put it back in its sleeve, search through my stacks of records for the one I wanted to listen to (always a dilemma), take it out of its sleeve, place it on the turntable, clean it with a dust cloth and finally let the needle down.
Encouraged by her selection, I asked, “Hey, Google, who’s that you’re playing?”
“I’m not sure,” she answered.
Not an auspicious beginning to our relationship. Trying to get to know Google better, I asked her to play a different song. Nothing — it was as if she hadn’t heard me. After several “Hey, Googles” followed by several more “OK, Googles” shouted over the music, I realized it wasn’t the volume but the inflection of my voice that turned her on (or off). If there was going to be any voice recognition going on, I was going to have to get her attention precisely the way I’d done it the first time. Only problem was that I’d forgotten if that was “HEY, Google.” Or “Hey, GOOgle.” Or, “Hey, GOOGLE!”
I realized then that just like with a human woman, a successful relationship with Google would only be possible if we developed a rapport. So over and over I repeated “Hey, Google” in every variation until I struck on the one that set her little multicolored lights fluttering.
The one that got her was the casually charming, “Hey, GOOgle.” Finally, my Google Assistant had heard me. She understood me. She spoke to me.
I couldn’t help wondering, though, what she must think of me.
“I’m not sure,” she said.