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Google Assistant adds interpreter mode as war with Amazon Alexa heats up

At CES, the search giant is getting even more ambitious with its digital helper software.

Richard Nieva Former senior reporter
Richard Nieva was a senior reporter for CNET News, focusing on Google and Yahoo. He previously worked for PandoDaily and Fortune Magazine, and his writing has appeared in The New York Times, on CNNMoney.com and on CJR.org.
Richard Nieva
7 min read

I don't speak German. But at the concierge desk at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas, I'm shooting the breeze with Phillip Klimke, a Google partnerships manager who's speaking nothing but German at the moment.

Our translator? Google Assistant .  

It's the latest trick for the Assistant, the search giant's digital helper software that's akin to Amazon's Alexa and Apple's Siri. On Tuesday at CES , the world's largest technology show, Google unveiled the Assistant's Interpreter mode, which aims to serve as a go-between for people who don't speak the same language.

Google is piloting the feature now at concierge desks at Caesars Palace (which is why we're here for the demo), the Dream Downtown in New York City and the Hyatt in San Francisco. The feature will be available first in smart displays with the Google Assistant built in. That includes Google's own Home Hub , a smart home device announced in October with a screen that shows you things like recipes and news updates. It also includes smart displays made by Google's partners, including Lenovo , JBL and LG

But Google wants to eventually bring it to other devices, including smartphones .

Here's how it works: Say, "Hey Google, be my Thai interpreter." You'll hear a beep and the Assistant will tell you to start speaking. After you say your next sentence in English, you'll hear another beep, then the software recites the sentence in Thai. The translated text is also displayed on the screen. The tool works in 27 languages, including Spanish, Czech, Hindi and Vietnamese.

"It's very futuristic," said Manuel Bronstein, vice president of product for the Assistant. "Our core focus is to make a product that can understand everything you say, can hear you, can convert those intents into actions and help you fulfill them."


Google is piloting the Assistant's new Interpreter mode feature at the Caesars Palace concierge desk.

James Martin/CNET

The Assistant's Interpreter mode is like using the Google translate app, but it's meant to streamline the back and forth and make it feel more natural. The tool worked without a hitch during a demo Google planned with a Caesars Palace concierge. But when we tried it ourselves, there were some stumbles. Sometimes you can get lost in the sequence of beeps because you'll want to rush into an answer, which throws off the timing of the software. Google said it's still trying to figure out the best rhythm of conversations.

I ask Klimke how he's doing and what he likes to do in Vegas. I ask him who his favorite basketball player is. The Assistant spits out the questions in German. He replies, in German, that his favorite player is Dirk Nowitzki (naturally).

The timing hitch aside, the Assistant handled all the translation questions from the CNET team pretty well: Where is the nearest bathroom? Does what happens in Vegas really stay in Vegas? Where can I find the best Elvis impersonator? You know, the important stuff.  

CES or bust

The new translation tool is the centerpiece announcement in Google's elaborate showing at CES, the largest trade show in the world. For the second straight year, the search giant is going over the top in a town already known for over-the-top spectacles. In 2019, Google's outdone itself: Its presence at CES is three times larger than last year. A massive banner reading "Hey Google" hangs over the main entrance of the Las Vegas Convention Center, as if it has the venue's naming rights. Google also set up an expansive playground and interactive ride in the parking lot outside the conference halls to showcase how the Assistant works with everything from TVs to washing machines.

CES and Las Vegas are now the front lines in the war between Google and Amazon over smart home supremacy, and Google is still playing catch-up. Amazon's Echo devices, powered by its popular Alexa software, dominate the smart speaker industry with 73 percent of the market. Google's Home devices come in second with 24 percent, according to Consumer Intelligence Research Partners, though the research firm notes that Google is "making strides."

Watch this: The first 5 things to do with a new Google Home speaker

Last week, Amazon announced that more than 100 million Alexa devices have been sold. Not to be outdone, Google on Monday said the Assistant, first released in 2016, is expected to be built into on 1 billion devices by the end of the month, up from 500 million last May. While the chasm between Google and Amazon seems huge, the figures don't really tell us a lot about how much people actually want the Google Assistant in their homes, since Android phones now already come with the software installed by default.

To gain ground in smart home devices, the company on Tuesday also unveiled Google Assistant Connect, a platform that lets third-party hardware makers more easily integrate the Assistant into their gadgets . Now device makers will be able to use tools provided by Google in their products that pairs with a nearby Google Home . The tech acts as a bridge, sending the Home's smarts to the outside devices.


Google and Lenovo showed off a smart alarm clock.


Because all the computing is done by the Home device, the data stays with Google, Bronstein said. The company said it's still figuring out what terms it will have set up with device makes. Those decisions will be important as Google, Facebook and other Silicon Valley companies face intense scrutiny not only for their own data collection practices, but for their abilities to keep that data safe from outsiders.

Google also highlighted the range of what Assistant-enabled devices could be. The company on Tuesday announced an $80 smart clock made by Lenovo, a smaller version of the Home Hub that's meant to look unobtrusive on a nightstand. It's similar to the Amazon Echo Spot, which the e-commerce giant announced two years ago. Other new Assistant devices include a car phone adapter made by Anker Roav that plugs into a cigarette lighter and a Whirlpool KitchenAid smart display.

"They are going to use this show as a demonstration of strength in diversity," said Brian Solis, an analyst at the Altimeter Group. "Devices are only going to become more connected."

Potentially profound

The biggest challenge for Google's Assistant may be getting everyone to stop comparing it to Amazon's Alexa. That's easier said than done, given the comparisons are merited: You can use both to control your thermostat or lock your door.

But even though it wants to own the home automation market, Google is working to lure consumers to the Assistant by proving it can do more that just tell you the day's headlines. So Google is banking on its 20 years of experience as the world's most advanced search engine, as well as its position as an artificial intelligence powerhouse, to build an assistant that aims to be more intelligent than the competition.

"At the beginning, it's going to be basic things like, 'Hey Google, play music,' and 'Turn on this light,'" Bronstein said. "But as you see with translation and so forth, I think the complexity of the tasks the Assistant is going to be able to handle will increase. And it's going to help you do things you weren't able to do before."

Those things include having a robot make a phone call on your behalf. That's what Google did in May with new Assistant technology called Duplex that ended up generating as much controversy as buzz for CEO Sundar Pichai. Duplex is a jaw-dropping, realistic-sounding AI that mimics human speech. The software uses verbal tics like "uh" and "um," and pauses while talking, as if thinking of what it's going to say next, even though its responses are preprogrammed.

The point of Duplex is to enable the Google Assistant to make restaurant reservations and hair appointments for you. But almost immediately, industry watchers, AI ethicists and consumers were worried about the software's ability to deceive the people it was talking to. Google later said it would build in disclosures that those calls were automated.

Even though Duplex remains controversial, it's those kinds of projects that could set Google's Assistant apart from its rivals. And that includes projects like Interpreter mode.

A live translation tool, especially on the smartphones almost everyone now carries around with them, has profound implications on how we interact with each other. I know it firsthand, from an extreme situation. In 2016, CNET sent a team to Greece to write about what impact, if any, technology was having on the global refugee crisis. When Syrians left home, they traveled first to Turkey, then the Greek isle of Lesvos, the nearest gateway to Europe.

As we visited refugee camps, we met migrants from Syria, Afghanistan, Iraq, Morocco and several other places. Many spoke English, but many did not. When they didn't, we passed our smartphones back and forth using Google Translate to communicate, like a digital talking stick. One memorable conversation I had was with a then-15-year-old Syrian boy I met in Athens. He spoke sparse English, but from our app-assistant chat I was able to learn that he arrived in Greece on a boat with 15 other families, that he plays a card game called Trex to pass the time, and that he loves to sing. His plan was to be the next Justin Bieber.

Lenovo Smart Clock tailors Google Assistant for your nightstand

See all photos

An Interpreter mode on phones has the potential to make the experience even more natural and free-ranging, enabling the discussion to take more spontaneous twists and turns.  

That's the dream. But, of course, there's reality. And reality hasn't always been kind to Google when it comes to next-gen translation efforts. Two years ago when Google unveiled its Pixel Buds wireless headphones, it also announced a live translation feature. The tool worked fine in demos, but didn't impress reviewers. CNET editor David Carnoy said in his review that "the best thing about Google's Pixel Buds is their case."

If Google brings Interpreter mode to phones, it won't be the first company to create a translation device. Developers including Dosmono and China's Sogou already make them. But if Google's version can pull off all the nuances of live translation, it could help scale the technology immensely: After all, almost nine out of every 10 smartphones shipped in the world run Google's Android software.

"Android's scale is really interesting because it's distributed in places where so many people speak multiple languages," said Vincent Lacey, a product manager for the Assistant. "You can see that unlocks a lot of opportunities."   

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