Google Now director Aparna Chennapragada announces ‘Now On Tap’ during the 2015 Google I/O conference on May 28, 2015 in San Francisco, California.
How will smartphones look in five years?
Business Insider posed this question to Aparna Chennapragada, a Google director, at the Web Summit tech conference in Ireland last month.
She described a future in which technology does “a lot more of the heavy lifting,” apps are desilo-ed, and the information that users want proactively comes to them.
Chennapragada heads up Google Now, Google’s virtual assistant app – and as such, its features and the philosophy behind it appears frequently in her vision of the future of smartphones.
And she’s not alone in her belief in the power of virtual assistants: just about every major player in the tech industry is developing one right now.
Here’s why Google thinks they’re the future, and what one of the company’s key architects has planned for it.
Assistance is a major part of mobile technology now.
“I start with this super cliched statement – from the Department of Obvious,” Chennapregada jokes at the beginning of the interview. “Mobile changes everything. I say that, people are rolling their eyes, like ‘come on, everyone knows this.'” Nonetheless, she highlights three “key shifts”:
“On a phone, you want answers on the go, you don’t have time to wade through screens. You want quick answers on the go. That’s the first shift.
“The second shift … unlike desktop, where the search engine was synonymous with finding information … phones are about getting stuff done. [It’s] About playing music through Spotify, or calling a cab using Uber … In some sense it’s not about getting answers, it’s about getting stuff done.
“The third shift, which is closer to my heart on Google Now … because [the phone is] such a partial attention device, you want the information to find you, not just for you to find the information. And that’s a big shift. It’s a big shift certainly for new companies, and it’s a big shift for Google as well.
“Assistance is the new black”
Smartphones: They’re here to help.
Virtual assistants are one of the trendiest themes in tech right now. Google has Google Now. Apple has Siri. Microsoft has Cortana. Facebook has M. “Assistance is the new black,” Chennapragada says. “The core job for us at Google in this new world is about assisting users … it’s how do you get your answers fast, how do we help you get stuff done.”
It’s a new role for Google, which has historically been content to serve up huge amounts of data and let users search through it themselves. But people are now on the go, and need the right information to find them.
This is what Google Now does. It learns your routine, and information you might need proactively finds its way to you: Whether that’s the weather, sports scores, road closures, or your schedule – the user gets the information they need (or that Google Now thinks they need), without ever having to “search.”
And this shift throws up new challenges. “Here, the product is a very high promise product. What I call the ratio of wow-to-WTF is much has to be much higher. What I mean by that is that if you get the wrong answer [when] you search for Donald Trump – you get the second best article, it’s not a big deal right? But if we told you ‘hey, your flight is delayed, don’t worry about it,’ and the goddamn thing is on time … W-T-F, right?
Chennapragada adds later: “The stakes are way higher.”
Avoiding the “creepy line”
Eric Piermont/Getty Images
Also speaking at Web Summit, David Marcus – the ex-PayPal CEO who now heads up Facebook Messenger and M, Facebook’s virtual assistant – discussed the concept of the “creepy line.” For virtual assistants to work well, and work proactively – anticipating your demands in advance – they need a lot of data on you. At what point does this get weird or “creepy?”
“While this is a very popular theme for news, I think there’s zero creepiness when there’a a lot of utility,” Marcus said. “The minute it gets creepy is when a company gets a lot of information and doesn’t give anything back.”
When I asked Chennapragada, she had a slightly different response – emphasizing user choice. “I’ve thought about this problem, oh I don’t know, for four years now? There are two fundamental principles. One principle is user control. The user agency. The user needs to be in the driver seat. Take Google Now, for example – basically saying the user is hiring the assistant – they’re saying ‘hey, use this data for my benefit, here’s the set of benefits that I want.’ It has to be a user opt-in. That’s one.
“There’s a complimentary thing about transparency that is, it’s not just about agency – it can’t be a black box. So in our case, for example, [we say] the location history is useful because when you’re on your way to pick up your child from the daycare you kind of need to know where you are, to tell you about the traffic incident ahead.
“These two things go hand-in-hand.”
Google Now is just getting started
Google Now isn’t where it needs to be just yet.
Chennapragada didn’t discuss usage numbers, but very much frames Google Now as in its infancy. She talks about “early steps,” and an elementary focus on”actually [making] sure the experience works right.”
Over the long term, Google Now wants to be all things to all people. But right now? “I’ll give you the honest picture here … when we give [users] assistance for enough points during the day or week, [they] find it super useful … [but] what we do find is in certain markets and certain users … [we don’t have] many useful things to say yet.”
She highlights a feature in Google Now that helps you remember where you park your car: “Awesome feature, everyone in the Bay Area who has parking woes, they love it.” But a user study carried out in Mumbai, India, provided a “reality check.”
A Google researcher explained the feature’s possibilities to a user in Mumbai, “and the guy just stares at him for a while, and says: ‘I jump off a train every day.’
“I’m laughing now, but I was like ‘holy sh*t!’ We really need to figure out what works for different markets.”
And despite being one of Google’s chief architects of the virtual assistant revolution, Aparna Chennapragada thinks the state of the tech is over-hyped right now. “Really, I think we underestimate where we are in the cycle of the whole assistant-based [app], ” she says. “On demand is all the rage right? … Assistance is like opinions, everyone has them. The parallel for me is the 1990s web – it’s just getting started … There’s an order of magnitude more users, 5 billion people will be online in five years, and suddenly this actually has the ability to affect the real world … we want to make sure that we’re building the blocks right.”