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The real problem with Google's new Gemini Android assistant

The real problem with Google's new Gemini Android assistant


To be honest, I was really looking forward to it. Moments from the past few days.

I've been skeptical ever since Google revealed that it was working on bringing its next-generation generative AI chatbot to Android as a replacement for Google Assistant. And ever since we installed the new standalone Gemini Android app and allowed it to take over our phone's Assistant functionality, that initial suspicion turned into a grumbling complaint that we were being misguided. became.

Now, let's be clear: Google Assistant in its current form is far from perfect. We've been talking for years about gaps in assistant advancement and ways to improve our services. And especially these days, it feels like Google is neglecting Assistant as it focuses on new buzzword-fueling toys.

Still, despite the shortcomings, the assistant understood what it was all about. This is a service with a purpose, and Google has spent years building it into a platform and making it available everywhere.

As for the new AI chatbot, known as Bard, until its rebranding late last week, Google had no idea what it was building or why it was building it (other than obvious business incentives). ) I never felt understood. And now that I've personally spent a few days with Gemini acting as a virtual assistant on his Pixel 8 Pro smartphone, I'm even more puzzled as to why Google would think this is a good idea.

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So, yeah, I didn't have that “aha!” experience. It was the moment I was hoping for, to say the least. But as I pondered what the specific problem with Gemini as a Google Assistant replacement was, and why it seemed like such a puzzling fit, I had a big realization.

And it's really very simple.

Contrast between Android, Gemini, and Google Assistant

First, we briefly explain the relevant perspectives. When Google Assistant was first released back in 2016, it was actually an evolution of a series of Android services that have been available for years.

In fact, the similarities were so striking that I initially described it as “the elephant in the room with Google Assistant.” Because the Assistant was really “an expanded, rebranded version of Google Assistant.” [we’d] Previously known as Voice Search, Google Now, and Now On Tap. ”

But all of these services serve the same underlying purpose: to help you perform simple tasks and get quick answers without using your hands or fiddling with on-screen menus. was. As Google poetically put it at the christening of the Assistant, it was “Google for your world.”

Despite its imperfections and growing pains, the assistant has served its purpose relatively well for most of us ever since, at least until the AI ​​chatbot craze began. Need to change random phone settings while on the go? Ask your assistant. Want to play a specific podcast or music? Adjust your supposedly smart office lights or thermostat? Set reminders, send messages, create calendar events, and check your schedule. Do you want to do it? Just give your silky-voiced Android companion a quick verbal command and get the job done.

Assistants are created to perform tasks. That means it can help you accomplish simple feats on your phone, control connected apps and gadgets, and in some cases call up short and simple answers or information.

In contrast, Gemini is a generative AI chatbot at its core. As with ChatGPT and other similar systems, its key feature is, to be fair, the ability to create generous words. But its ability to mash up text and images and summarize large amounts of existing information sets it apart from previous efforts and makes it useful (at least for some people, in theory). I am.

And, well, that's okay! That's what it's for, and it clearly has a role to play. But when you compare that purpose with the Android Assistant's purpose, the connection becomes confusing. And after living with Gemini instead of Google Assistant for a few days, I see it more clearly than ever.

The real problem with Gemini as an Android assistant is that Google has forgotten why phone assistants are actually important and what we, as real users in the real world, need from such a service. That's it.

It's simple and straightforward, but using Gemini instead of Google Assistant is like awkwardly pushing a square peg into a round hole. It feels less like a phone assistant and more like a clumsy adaptation of an AI chatbot, which is currently half-baked and not at all intended or appropriate in this context.

And the longer you spend time with Gemini, the more obvious that disconnect becomes.

Addition of Gemini's pesky assistant

First of all, the relative strengths Gemini brings are not what an on-demand assistant would need or make sense in that environment.

Anything generative is fine as long as it's for the right purpose and comes with all the usual asterisks about quality, accuracy, originality, etc. But do you really need such functionality in the context of an on-demand assistant on your phone? You're not likely to look for functionality within an app (these are all places where similar types of systems work). (already added)?


Some of the recommended actions from Google's new Gemini Android Assistant interface.

These features are strangely out of place in this context and unnecessary, especially when the exact same features have also been added to every other imaginable app and service, including most Google services.

And that's not to mention an even more important part of the picture: the standard assistant intelligence you'd expect from a service in this field.

Downgrade Google Assistant to Gemini

Don't overdo it: Moving from Google Assistant to Gemini will significantly regress core functionality that relies on Android Assistant.

As we mentioned earlier, the universal smartphone assistant is perfect for answering simple questions, performing basic tasks on your device, and interacting with connected gadgets, and it's the best way to answer simple questions, perform basic tasks on your device, and interact with connected gadgets. You can do what has worked for you.

Geminis are usually slow and unreliable at doing all these things, and sometimes they don't do them at all. Want to set reminders? Do you want to work with your calendar? Do you remember where you parked? Do you want to play music? Gemini can't do that yet. If you encounter a task that can be handled, such as asking the system to search for a specific email, most people will probably swipe away and handle it themselves before it's finished, since the process is clunky and slow.


Trying to use Gemini as an Android assistant can be frustrating.

Even when speaking, sending input requires an awkward extra tap. Also, they rarely respond by voice. This defeats the original purpose of interacting with her Android helper on the go hands-free.

Beyond that, Google's separate new Circle to Search system (and even the simple Google Lens technology that powers it) is significantly better at visual search. Gemini feels like a major downgrade from traditional assistants in almost every way.

And all this is not to mention the real question of accuracy and whether you can trust the information that Gemini provides as your on-demand assistant. As we all know by now, these large language model chatbots have a fun little habit of “hallucinating,” where they dispense with euphemisms, make up information, and confidently present it as fact. To do.

For example, here is a screenshot showing the questions I asked Gemini about the Super Bowl on Saturday, the day before the game was played. On the right you can see my attempt to reproduce his results on Sunday morning, still a few hours before kick-off.


In the hours leading up to this year's Super Bowl, Gemini gave a variety of answers to a simple question.

All other issues aside, you can't trust your Android Assistant to reliably provide you with even the most basic information, and you always have to question whether the information it tells you is trustworthy or true. So what's the point of Android Assistant?

Google's mysterious pivot

So, to summarize: When it comes to on-demand mobile device assistants, you don't need the ability to create mediocre text or creepy images from anywhere on Android. A fast, consistent way to interact with your phone and other connected devices, get things done with core productivity services, and have basic information read out loud in response to simple questions. , you need a reliable system.

Google Assistant has done it for you. We do it with the undisputed, recognizable brand that Google has spent endless energy building over the past few years, and the famous, recognizable voices that Android users have come to trust and value. Did. Throwing it all away and creating an entirely new system that introduces out-of-place and unnecessary bells and whistles and doesn't effectively perform the basic functions of the Assistant is the most Google-like thing imaginable. This is inexplicable behavior in a superficial sense.

Now, it makes a lot of sense to polish up the Assistant, fix its issues, and add Gemini as an optional add-on that can be called upon for its generation capabilities should such a need arise. But positioning Gemini as a complete replacement for an assistant that is inferior in virtually everything is a very strange move, and an attempt to force the wrong tool to work for a very specific purpose. It looks like.

To be honest, it's fast. And perhaps Gemini will get better. (I hope so!) But either way, this is the future of Assistant that Google will be prominently showing off and making available to users right now. And even if some of the mechanisms are improved, it seems unlikely that the broader philosophical questions we have been thinking about will change significantly.

Speaking of which, earlier this year I asked a wide-ranging philosophical question about the hype-driven obsession with AI that is clearly heading in our direction.

How much of the current rush to cram some form of “AI” into everything imaginable is actually about what is useful and advantageous to us, the humans who utilize these creations? And whether it's what it accomplishes or how it fits into our lives, chasing the latest buzzwords and finding reasons to use the term “AI” is How important is it?

As we learn more about Gemini's role as the ultimate Google Assistant replacement on Android, we can't help but return to this question. Given investor demands regarding competitive pressures, public perception, etc., it's painfully clear why Google is pursuing this change from a business perspective. of course. Are you okay. anything.

But from a real user's point of view, how does moving to Gemini as an Android assistant make sense, or how do most of us ordinary mammals actually use this product in modern times? It's hard to see how it's any kind of upgrade for people with . Today's life. Most of us don't need a “creative” chatbot at our fingertips all day long in every area of ​​our Android experience. There's no need to always generate images and text on demand. And short verbal questions certainly don't require lengthy on-screen answers of questionable accuracy.

What we need is a simple, reliable task handler and an accurate and concise information relay. The assistant established a framework for that. And once you've been living with a Gemini for a while, Google, at least in its current form, gets caught up in the latest tech industry hype and wonders what its phone assistants are actually for, and how to use these products. I can't help but feel like we're forgetting what we actual humans do. I want that kind of service.

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