Earlier this month, Google unveiled Duplex, where its programme is able to call to make appointments on your behalf. In an audio demo, viewers sat in on a conversation between a salon manager and a very human-sounding Google Duplex, replete with disfluency. Then came another audio demo, this time Google Duplex had to talk to a wait staff, whose first language isn't English.
At first, it looked like the Duplex's AI is unable to communicate its intent as well as comprehend the wait staff's scant English but after a while, Duplex's machine learning kicked in and was able to secure a reservation.
Responses to the demo ranged from awe to "this is how Skynet happens"; mostly ethicists are worried that the AI's advanced mimicry of the human voice might violate consent and privacy laws. Think of it as audio catfishing; the best application to Turing's Test. Google CEO Sundar Pichai said that any call that Duplex makes, it will inform the other party that they are talking to an AI (we might wanna hold off the applause as Google removed its "Don't be evil" clause from their code of conduct).
Which brings me to the Google Home. The voice-activated smart speaker was launched last month in Singapore and while it beat the Apple HomePod and Amazon Alexa in selling, it still took a while before it was readily made available to Singaporeans. And the reason for the delay was… Singlish.
Bane of the government, the easy identifier of other Singaporeans overseas; despite the insistence of learning proper English in school, Singlish is that comfortable pair of slippers a Singaporean will put on after a long day of pronouncing the 'th' sound. Our own patois honed over many years of racial intermingling and British influences, Google needed to understand how we speak, in order to tailor Google Home to our local tongue. Taking cues from the audio data collated from using Google, engineers felt satisfied to release it.
We tested out the Google Home. So far, I've managed to use my device to play Netflix shows; inform me of the weather; tell a local joke ("Why is the chilli crab always cutting queue? Because it's shellfish."). It's cute the way it replies with a discourse particle or how it uses 'can' rather casually but after a while, it loses its novelty. You'll notice limitations like its inability to recite our national anthem or not knowing how to swear in Singlish. Talk to Google Home in full-on Singlish and we think it could explode; it starts to feel like a dad learning new lingo to impress his kids.
And while Google Home is meant for everybody, it feels like you'd only get more bang for your buck if you're an Android user. You can't fully integrate your iPhone with the Home so you can only check your schedule on a Google Calendar.
But these are all just means to an end—trying to make your home a smart one. It's all about how much third-party devices you can link together. Philips Hue can brighten one's room and set the tone for its mood lighting; shows can be streamed via a Chromcast dongle; music can be played from Spotify through Google Home's own driver.
Google Home is building up its vocabulary. With audio data being collated and studied, it won't be long before we can have Google Home calling up a Singaporean restaurant, wade through the local lingo and emerge at the end of the lap with an appointment. That's a fantastic benchmark in machine comprehension but the true test, I feel, for the Google Home isn't to sound like a human being, it's to sound like a local.
The Google Home retails for SGD189 and the Home Mini retails for SGD79. They are available at authorised retailers, including Courts.