Virtual assistants are great, when they can understand you. So asking Google Assistant to call a friend or text a family member with a unique name can be frustrating.
“Understanding spoken language is difficult because it’s so contextual, and varies so much from person to person,” according to Yury Pinsky, director of product management at Google. “And names can bring up other language hiccups—for instance, some names that are spelled the same are pronounced differently.
“It’s this kind of complexity that makes perfectly understanding the way we speak so difficult,” Pinsky wrote in a blog post. “This is something we’re working on with Assistant, and we have a few new improvements to share.”
A new feature, rolling out now in English, lets users teach Google Assistant to enunciate and recognize contact names the way you pronounce them. The AI listens and learns without keeping a recording of your voice.
One of the great joys of owning a smart speaker is setting timers, but setting more than one timer at the same time can get confusing for the virtual assistant, and you. “You might fumble and stop mid-sentence to correct how long the timer should be set for, or maybe you don’t use the exact same phrase to cancel it as you did to create it,” the blog said. “Like in any conversation, context matters and Assistant needs to be flexible enough to understand what you’re referring to when you ask for help.”
With that in mind, Google rebuilt Assistant’s natural-language understanding (NLU) models to more accurately recognize context and better follow commands. So now, the virtual secretary can respond “nearly 100% accurately” to alarms and timer tasks. Updates are available for Google smart speakers in English in the US, and will expand to phones and smart displays “soon.”
Additional machine learning upgrades also help improve the quality of conversations. By relying on previous interactions and understanding what’s currently on the screen, Assistant can respond to follow-up questions to create a natural, back-and-forth dialog.
While chatting about fun in the sun in Miami, for instance, you can say, “Show me the nicest beaches,” and Assistant knows you mean Florida coastlines. It can also understand queries referencing what you’re looking at on a smartphone or tablet screen, like “Who built the first one?” or seemingly incomplete questions like “When?” or “Where?”
“There’s a lot of work to be done,” Pinsky admitted. “And we look forward to continue advancing our conversational AI capabilities as we move toward more natural, fluid voice interactions that truly make everyday a little easier.”