Google I/O, the company’s annual developer conference, can be summed up in two words: artificial intelligence. From new tools that help you write drafts or organize data in Google Docs and Sheets to “supercharged” search results, AI was everywhere at Google I/O.
What we didn’t hear much about, however, was the Google Assistant — the company’s intelligent voice-enabled helper that’s been a key part of its core products over the last seven years. Although the Assistant is inherently different from the tools and services Google showcased at I/O, it shares the same underlying goals, like conjuring answers that are more useful than typical search results and taking care of certain tasks on your behalf.
The Assistant has served as the intelligent thread connecting many of Google’s products and services together, from its Pixel phones and watch to its Nest speakers and even your car. But if Google’s I/O presentation is indicative of its future strategy, the company is infusing more of its individual products with AI rather than relying on the Assistant as the smart layer that unites them all.
When Google introduced the Assistant at the very same conference in May 2016, it positioned its digital helper as the future of search. “People are increasingly interacting naturally with Google, and aren’t just looking for the world’s information but actually expecting Google to help them with their daily tasks,” reads a 2016 Google blog post from Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai introducing the Assistant.
The Google Assistant wasn’t just about coming up with an answer to Siri or Alexa; new products were built around it. Google Home smart speakers were developed as voice-first alternatives to Amazon’s sprawling Echo empire. Google also flaunted its original Pixel phone as the first phone with the Google Assistant built-in. Voice Assistants like Amazon’s Alexa were beginning to permeate the cultural vernacular around 2016 and 2017, making appearances in Super Bowl ads and on Saturday Night Live.
At CES 2018, the Assistant was everywhere as Google announced a slew of partnerships that put its ambient helper in products from Lenovo, LG, JBL and others. Google’s booth at the show was essentially an interactive advertisement for the Google Assistant, underscoring the company’s vision for a voice-first future at the time.
It didn’t stop there. Wireless earbuds, which initially caught on as a more convenient way to listen to music and podcasts, started to center on digital assistants. Hands-free Siri access was one of the headlining features of Apple’s 2019 AirPods, and Amazon launched its own AirPods rival called the Echo Buds that same year as a faster way to access Alexa on-the-go.
The Google Assistant has traditionally been a major focus during Google I/O, where the company not only shows off developer tools but lays out the vision for its products. At last year’s Google I/O, for example, it announced a feature that lets you activate the Google Assistant on the Nest Hub Max just by looking at it.
Taken together, these developments painted a picture that virtual butlers were going to be the new way we search the internet and interact with the growing number of tech devices in our lives.
But seven years after the Google Assistant’s debut, the tech landscape looks different. The division that oversees Alexa product development was impacted by Amazon layoffs last year, although the company’s hardware chief Dave Limp told CNBC it remains “fully committed” to Alexa.
Google reportedly reorganized its virtual assistant team to focus more on its Bard generative AI chatbot, according to CNBC. Google also stopped providing software updates for certain third-party smart display models from Lenovo, JBL and LG. Some voice assistant users have also grown concerned about privacy and frustrated when a virtual helper like Alexa accidentally delivers the wrong answer, according to reports from the BBC and the Washington Post.
In response to CNET’s request for comment, a Google spokesperson said the Assistant is a top priority for the company.
At the same time, something unexpected happened in late 2022. A seemingly better way to retrieve answers on the web emerged: ChatGPT. The online chatbot, run by OpenAI, quickly caught on because it could go a step beyond just answering questions. Instead of just asking for diet tips or workout ideas, it could plan your weekly meals and come up with an exercise routine. ChatGPT and other products like it use generative AI, or AI that can create content based on prompts, to come up with such responses.
It felt a lot more sophisticated than asking Google or Alexa to summarize a news article or turn off your lights, and tech companies quickly took notice. Google and Microsoft (the latter of which missed out on the voice assistant boom) wasted no time injecting their products with generative AI in 2023.
It’s those efforts that were on full display at Google I/O, as the company showcased how it will use generative AI to spice up your text messages, generate images to match the text in your Google Slides presentation and summarize your latest email thread in Gmail.
That’s not to say the Google Assistant isn’t present in the company’s upcoming products. In fact, it’s the opposite. The new Pixel Tablet turns into a smart speaker when docked, meaning many people will likely be using voice commands to interact with it. The Pixel Fold can translate speech using both the outer and inner screen, which should make it easier to chat with those who speak a different language. And part of what makes Google’s Pixel phones stand out in the first place is their Assistant-powered features, like the ability for Google to wait on hold for you.
But despite all this, the Google Assistant barely came up during what may be the company’s biggest event of the year. While that’s surprising given Google’s big focus on AI, perhaps it’s a sign that the Google Assistant has matured. It’s just a native part of Google’s products at this point and therefore needs less stage time.
Now, it’s generative AI’s turn to take the spotlight.