Google’s AI Assistant aims to transcend the smart speaker

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SAN FRANCISCO — When Google launched its now distinctive digital assistant in 2016, it was already in danger of being an also-ran.

At the time, Amazon had been selling its Echo smart speaker, powered by its Alexa voice assistant, for more than a year. Apple’s Siri was already five years old and familiar to most iPhone users. Google’s main entry in the field up to that point was Google Now, a phone-bound app that took voice commands but didn’t answer back.

Now the Google Assistant — known primarily as the voice of the Google Home smart speaker — is increasingly central to Google’s new products. And even though it remains commercially overshadowed by Alexa, it keeps pushing the boundaries of what artificial intelligence can accomplish in everyday settings.

For instance, Google last year announced an Assistant service called Duplex, which it said can actually call up restaurants and make reservations for you. Duplex isn’t yet widely available yet outside of Google’s own Pixel phones in the U.S. Alexa and Siri so far offer nothing similar.

Google is expected to announce updates and expansions to its AI Assistant at its annual developer conference Tuesday.

Although voice assistants have spread across smartphones and into cars and offices, they’re currently most commonly found in the home, where people tend to use them with smart speakers for simple activities such as playing music, setting timers and checking the weather. Amazon’s Echo devices maintain a strong lead in the market, according to eMarketer; the firm estimates that 63% of all U.S. smart speaker users will talk to an Amazon device this year, compared to 31% that will use Google. Apple’s HomePod is a mere afterthought, lumped in the “other” category which has a combined 12%.

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