Google Assistant can schedule appointments, control your home, and tell you why the sky is blue, but thanks to a small band of creative types — its personality team — it can also be a game show host, a fortune teller, or a sports fan.
The personality team behind Google Assistant decides what it replies if you ask “What’s your favorite color?” or “Who are you rooting for in the Super Bowl?” The team is tasked with the creation of the personality of Google Assistant, what CEO Sundar Pichai said he wants to be your personal guide in the age of artificial intelligence.
Members of the personality team come from Pixar, The Onion, and other creative companies. For the better part of the last decade, Google Assistant personality team director Ryan Germick has been chief doodler at Google, making drawings, games, and other content for Google’s front page.
“If someone wants to have a conversation that’s not just about information needs, it’s about social niceties or chit-chat or telling a joke or having a little bit of fun,” Germick said, “the type of things that build a relationship with a person that are in some ways emotional than informational, that’s my team’s department.”
Germick’s work building a personality for Google Assistant started two years ago when he began collaborating with the Google search team in Switzerland.
“We were determined to find out who was Google’s personality, like if you’re talking to Google, who are you talking to? And so we try to distill that down into simple principles as a guiding light for who the Google Assistant would be,” he said.
The Google Assistant personality team does things like teach Google Assistant to sing to you on Valentine’s Day or suggest New Year’s resolutions. They also created Lucky Trivia and Lucky Sports Trivia, multiplayer game shows hosted by Google Assistant. In the game she — Google Assistant has a woman’s voice, Germick noted — may tease you or give you a nickname.
Germick and his team sought to make a personality that’s friendly, inclusive, and sort of like a quirky, nerdy librarian to the world’s most famous search bar.
“We don’t want to lose our quirk. I think it’s important for us to have a little bit of weirdness. I think that’s a little bit of individuality. We don’t want to be bland,” he explained.
When thinking about how the personality of visual Google Doodles translates to the personality of the voice of Google Assistant, Germick gives three examples: The cultural sensitivity to feature the 86th anniversary of Japanese radio calisthenics, the nerdy homage to Alan Turing’s 100th birthday, and the just-for-the-fun-of-it game to fight ghosts on Halloween last year.
Doodles helped prepare the creation of Google Assistant because many of the more than 400 doodles made last year were for countries outside the United States. Since its launch last Fall, Google Assistant in the Allo chat app has already expanded to German, Japanese, Hindi, and Brazilian Portuguese.
It may seem odd for software driven by powerful tech like artificial intelligence to crack jokes or convey empathy, but people buy devices for more than playing music or checking the weather. Some develop relationships with these devices, betraying a human tendency to anthropomorphize objects. Google isn’t the only one to recognize this.
There was even talk last year (along with multiple stories in the press) about giving Google Assistant a childhood backstory. That hasn’t happened yet.
“I don’t think anytime soon we’ll be doing [anything] like the prequel years, where you find out what preschool was like, but I do think it’s important to think about what goes into that character and what makes them who they are,” Germick said.
Whether based on personality or any other reason, adoption is key in the increasingly competitive chat wars being waged between Amazon, Google, Microsoft, and Samsung.
According to the 2017 Voice Report from Google Assistant partner VoiceLabs, about nine in 10 people are unwilling to purchase a new device after buying either an Amazon Echo or Google Home, suggesting that people are extremely loyal to the one they own, and winner takes all.
Not every Google Assistant personality trait is promoted. As with Alexa, some Google Assistant personality features are instead intended to be discovered.
One collection of little-known Google Assistant Easter eggs:
“There’s tons of movie references and nerd references, like if you want to talk about Star Trek or Game of Thrones or Star Wars, or whatever, chances are there’s something there for you,” he said.
Google Assistant is a rough draft, a work in progress, like the rest of the intelligent assistant industry, Germick said, but it does have some guiding principles, one of which is to be always there but never in the way.
That means understanding when it’s a bad idea to demonstrate Google’s playful personality.
“If you were shopping online for caskets, that’s not the time to be goofy, but it is a time to be about empathy, and to respond in a way that’s emotionally sensitive to the user,” Germick said. “If there’s anything our philosophy rallies around it’s just having a humanist perspective and thinking how can I help a person right now? Sometimes jokes are the way and sometimes it means shutting up and getting out of the way is the way.”
Making sure that Google Assistant stays out of your way in sensitive moments or when you’re just trying to find the nearest sandwich shop means practicing what Germick calls “empathetic design.”
“I think as much as we can bring humanity and a creative human touch into our products, the more we can do to make technology a warmer place, and that’s deeply important to me and part of what makes the Google Assistant such a fun product to work on, because there’s such an opportunity for that.”