In a show like Star Trek, it’s easy to get lost in some of the more ambitious tech that illustrates humanity’s future. There’s the replicator, a machine that makes basically anything you want. The transporter is another good one. NASA would kill to get its hands on just one warp drive. But there’s another piece of tech that lies in the background, and it’s much more important to our lives today: the ship’s computer.
In every Star Trek series, captains and crewmen bark orders to a faceless computer, and those orders are executed with 100 percent accuracy (barring any mechanical malfunctions, that is). Even when the Klingons are attacking, the computer never misunderstands commands—human or otherwise.
While complex military maneuvers might still require a standard graphics UI, Star Trek proves that the future of personal computing is all about voice user interface (VUI).
And at its annual software event today, Google went full Star Trek when revealing some new AI tricks headed to Android Q, the latest software that’ll find its way into billions of devices. Arguably, it’s the first time we’ve truly glimpsed the promise of voice-activated interfaces in real life and what they could mean for the future of tech design. It’s a long-accepted idea that the very best user interfaces are the ones that feel the most natural. Perhaps no one understood this better than Steve Jobs, who rejected the common idea of the smartphone in 2007 and instead relied on the “digital styluses” that nature gave us—all 10 of them.
But this is only one instance in a steady evolution of forming technology to our natural human inclinations. While our fingers navigated our phones, digital pens returned creating improved drawing and note-taking tools, fingerprints become our lock buttons, and even our facial expressions were imported with Apple’s Animoji.
“Voice assistants represent the third key UI and technology platform shift of the past three decades,” says Harvard Business Review. “Web pages gave us ‘click’… smartphones introduced ‘touch’…these transitions required consumers to learn a new language…the shift to voice doesn’t require any training.”
It’s our voices that will really change the way we think about computing, and it’s why Amazon has at least 10,000 employees working on Alexa and Google has outspent other companies in AI research by more than $3 billion.
After all, complex language is what separates us from every other species on the planet. It’s unique to us and it’s our most powerful natural tool for communication. So it only makes sense that eventually it would also become the best means to communicate with our devices.
Just like Captain Picard tasking the ship’s computer with a string of complex actions in near-real time, all of us will be able to do the same with our phones and laptops using just our voices.
Today, at Google I/O, AI chief Scott Huffman gave a demonstration that could easily be Star Trek tech in its infancy.
“What if we could bring the AI that powers the Assistant right onto your phone?” asked Huffman. “What if the Assistant was so fast at processing your voice, that tapping to operate your phone would almost seem slow?”
This, of course, addresses one of VUI’s many limitations compared to the traditional graphics user interface. With billions of different voices, deep subtleties of human language, and additional processing lag for speech recognition, VUI feels beneficial for one-off Google queries, but nearly unusable if you’re trying to get real work done.
And that’s where Google’s so-called “Next Generation Assistant” comes in.
“Running on device, [Google Assistant] can process and understand requests in real time,” said Huffman. “And deliver the answers up to ten times faster.”
After stating this bold claim, Huffman invited a fellow (human) assistant to walk through Google Assistant’s new tricks. The Google AI blazed through several apps, completing tasks like “open my calendar,” “what’s the weather,” and “book a Lyft to my hotel.”