Google Assistant just showed it's catching up to Amazon Alexa

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
The Google Home's design.

Google (GOOG, GOOGL) upped the ante in its battle with Amazon (AMZN) for AI assistant supremacy at its I/O conference in Mountain View, California on Wednesday with a slew of announcements that push its Assistant past Amazon’s Alexa in some meaningful ways.

During the show, Google’s VP of engineering for Assistant, Scott Huffman, showed how the voice assistant can understand context better than its previous iteration. You can, for example, translate text using Google’s new Lens app, which has Assistant built in, and then ask a question about the text without specifically mentioning it.

‘Okay, Google. Get me food’

In a stage demonstration, Huffman’s stage assistant showed how you could use Lens to translate Japanese on a board outside of a restaurant. Lens translated the characters on the board to show they listed octopus dumplings. Huffman then asked Assistant what they look like, and without him having to mentioning octopus dumplings specifically, Assistant pulled up photos of the dumplings.

Google’s product manager for Assistant, Valerie Nygaard, then took the stage to show off how the app can now perform transactions from start to finish. Nygaard asked Assistant to get her an order from Panera. After she told the app what she wanted, it placed an order by scanning her fingerprint.

Nygaard’s address and payment information came from her existing Google account, which Assistant then used to place her order.

Getting proactive

Assistant will also soon get proactive reminders for things like upcoming meetings, traffic problems on your way to work or changes to an upcoming flight. If you’ve got to get somewhere and traffic is backed up on the way, Google Home will light up. When you activate the device it will read off your notifications.

Google has also added hands-free calling to the Home, but curiously only mentioned that it will place free calls to landlines. That sounds like an odd choice considering tech savvy people with a Google Home probably don’t have landlines.

‘Hi, Mom!’

And because Assistant can recognize your voice, if you tell it to “call Mom” it will call your mother. If someone else in your home asks Assistant to call mom, the app will call their mother, not yours.

Google’s timing comes a few days after Amazon announced that its Alexa voice assistant and Echo speaker will be able to make hands-free calls to other Echoe devices.

Google Home and Assistant will also soon work with your Chromecast, so you’ll be able to tell it to play a music video on your TV or live shows through YouTube TV.

Amazon’s got skills

Amazon’s Alexa still has its more than 10,000 skills that make it incredibly useful, and the company recently announced two additional versions of its Echo with the camera-equipped Echo look and Echo Show with a built-in display for video chat capabilities.

Google’s new Assistant and Home offerings are certainly interesting, but we’ll have to try them ourselves before we can say whether they are as useful as Alexa’s features. Stay tuned.

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Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.