In an exclusive interview with TIME, Google’s chief software engineer Amit Singhal revealed that the company once developed a wearable product which works in a similar manner to the Communicator pin badges worn by the Enterprise crew in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The Bluetooth-connected lapel pin could be activated by a single tap and had a built-in microphone…
Sadly, for those of us who grew up watching Captain Picard, Data, Will Ryker and the rest of the crew communicate using futuristic lapel pins, Google shelved the plans.
“I always wanted that pin,” says Singhal. “You just ask it anything and it works. That’s why we were like, ‘Let’s go prototype that and see how it feels.’”
There’s no surprise where the inspiration for this lapel pin came from, Amit Singhal is openly a huge Star Trek fan and even admits to knowing some episodes line-for-line. In fact, much of what was eventually included Google Now and the company’s Voice Actions, was developed with Star Trek as a primary influence. Prior to going live, Google Now was even given the code-name Project Majel, in reference to the actress who voiced the Enterprise’s computer AI system.
While the project was scrapped after the initial testing period, Google is still working hard to develop a system which better understands voice, and responds in a more human way. While Google Now has become really good at recognizing words and phrases, it faces the same struggle any machine will come across: Understanding meaning. A computer can’t draw on past experiences or emotions to weigh up the significance of particular sentences.
Still, the company is working hard to ‘crack that nut’. Over recent months, Google has used some very advanced deep neural network technologies to help it improve many of its services, including search, Google Now and YouTube, among others. What’s more, Google recently open-sourced TensorFlow (its neural network engine) and bought a stake in Mobvoi, a Chinese AI company. In theory, it could begin to use these machine learning techniques to teach significance and meaning to the Google Now service, so that it knows just how important or valuable particular words and phrases are to you, or in general.
In the future, Google sees verbal commands as the ‘only way’ we’ll be interacting with our devices. Regardless of platform, whether it’s a smartphone, watch or something we’ve not seen yet, we’ll communicate with it using our voices. The only way to prepare for that is to make sure voice dictation/assistant technology is ready.
“We don’t know what devices are coming, but we know they’re coming,” Singhal says. “Search and natural language is how you will interact with them and get information and services that you need in the moment, no matter if you’re cooking or driving or walking your dog or playing catch with your son.”
As excited as I am about the future of voice-controlled tech, I still hope Google revisits the lapel pin idea. If only so that I can order my replicator to make me a cup of hot black Earl Grey tea.