Last week, Google unveiled the new Pixel phone, with Google Assistant built in. It's Google's latest attempt at a virtual assistant aimed to take down the likes of Siri and power their upcoming Google Home. If you are of the impatient sort, and you want to see Assistant in action, you don't have to wait. How? Install Allo. Although Allo is listed as a "smart messaging app", it is much, much more.
Allo offers three components which, when combined, make for a really impressive system. However it's the Assistant piece that really shines. What is Assistant? As I said, it's a virtual assistant wrapped inside a messaging app that actually functions outside of messaging, and does a remarkable job.
For instance, you can ask Assistant to tell you about the news, at which point Assistant will ask you to specify what kind of news. Once you've specified, it'll then display a card that you can tap on to open web page containing the news in question. Or you can schedule an appointment. Or...
Wait a second, isn't this sounding a bit like Google Now? Yes, it is. But remember, the developers shifted Google Now to Google Now On Tap (which has been renamed to Screen Search). So why the seeming redundancy? Of Assistant, Google Says:
"The assistant is conversational - an ongoing two-way dialogue between you and Google that understands your world and helps you get things done. It makes it easy to buy movie tickets while on the go, to find that perfect restaurant for your family to grab a quick bite before the movie starts, and then help you navigate to the theater."
Have a conversation
That conversational element is key to what makes Assistant different. Instead of instructing Assistant on what you want, you have a natural conversation with it (it picks up on subtle differences in the use of language). As hokey as that might sound, it's actually a vast improvement over what the competition has to offer. Instead of saying "Okay Google, set appointment", you say, "Set an appointment" (or "schedule and appointment" or "book an appointment", etc.). Upon recording your command, Assistant will then ask, "When is the event?". Answer the question and Assistant will continue asking question to specify the event (Figure A).
Assistant, via Allo, running on the OnePlus 3.
The conversational aspect of Assistant makes using the tool remarkably easy to get news, schedule appointments, find reviews of movies, purchase tickets, and more. What you can do with Amazon's Echo, you'll probably be able to do with Assistant. And considering this will be driving Google Home (their take on Amazon Echo), Assistant's ability to determine the context of a conversation is even more remarkable.
The big caveat
You might have heard that Edward Snowden has warned users to not install or use Allo. Why? The concern is simple— that conversations will be retained on servers. There is another, more disconcerting issue. Allo was supposed to employ end-to-end encryption for messages. That is, unfortunately, not happening. At least not out of the box. You can, however, start a chat in Incognito mode to encrypt your chats (this should be the default). But what about Assistant? Will these conversations between user and AI be encrypted, or vanish from the Google servers once they've served their purpose? It seems the answer to these questions are "no" and "until the user deletes them." Good news: the deletion of Assistant chats is a really simple task. While you're using Assistant, tap on the menu button in the top right corner, tap Clear history (Figure B), and then tap Delete.
Viola!, your chat history is cleared.
Those who consider security a top priority will probably avoid Allo and Assistant. But if you're using Assistant for innocuous questions and adding simple events to your calendar, there's really no harm. And experiencing what Google has done with AI, is really impressive. If you want to see the technology that will drive Google Home (and add something that could possibly make your interaction with Android more productive), I highly recommending at least giving the Assistant portion of Allo a try.
Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic and Linux.com. He’s an avid promoter of open source and the voice of The Android Expert. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen.com.