Majel: Google’s Star Trek-Inspired Siri Competitor Reportedly Due Out Soon
In some cases, Google’s voice search is already far superior to Apple’s Siri. This became immediately clear with some internal testing we did surrounding the Siri abortion story. While it didn’t read us the answers aloud in a robot voice, we just got better results from Google.
In fact, while Siri has certainly been a hit, and has proven useful at times, it’s not perfect. Google’s not perfect either, but when it comes to search, Google has a little bit of background in that area. Siri does more than search obviously, but search is a big part of it. Google happens to do more than search too, and being Apple’s main competitor in the smartphone space, it makes sense that Google would be working on its answer to Siri.
Android and Me reports that this is indeed the case, and we might even see it before the year is over (but more realistically within the next couple of months). It’s being developed under the code name Majel, says Android and Me’s Taylor Wimberly. Majel comes from Majel Barrett-Roddenberry, who provided the voice for most of the onboard computer interfaces throughout Star Trek.
The Star Trek theme is one that Google has embraced for quite some time. Just over a year ago, Google acquired Phonetic Arts, a speech synthesis company that generates natural computer speech from samples of recorded voice.
“In Star Trek, they don’t spend a lot of time typing things on keyboards—they just speak to their computers, and the computers speak back,” said Google Speech Technology Manager Mike Cohen at the time. “It’s a more naturalway to communicate, but getting there requires chipping away at a range of hard research problems. We’ve recently made some strides with speech technologies and tools that take voice input: for example, we launched Voice Search, Voice Input and Voice Actions for mobile phones, allowing you to speak web searches, compose emails by voice, ask your phone to play any song, and more. And last year we started automatically transcribing speech to produce captions on YouTube videos.”
But Phonetic Arts comes in when you start talking about computers talking back to you – voice output as opposed to input – kind of like Siri, though Google has offered some things in this area since long before Siri came to the iPhone. Examples include features in Google Translate and Maps Navigation.
A Star Trek mention also came up in a recent video Google put out about the evolution of search.
“The truth is that our users need much more complex answers,” said Google’s Amit Singhal in the video. “My dream has always been to build the Star Trek computer, and in my ideal world, I would be able to walk up to a computer, and say, ‘Hey, what is the best time for me to sow seeds in India, given that monsoon was early this year?’ And once we can answer that question (which we don’t today), people will be looking for answers to even more complex questions. These are all genuine information needs. Genuine questions that if we – Google – can answer, our users will become more knowledgeable and they will be more satisfied in their quest for knowledge.”
Wimberly says the initial release of “Majel” will likely only include Google search queries at first, and it may include some of what is being worked on at Google X (you, know – Google’s secret robot lab). Other, more advanced features like controlling phone actions and apps with natural language, are expected to come later, he says.
I’m sure that won’t stop people from slamming the service when it comes out, proclaiming that it’s not as good as Siri – kind of like what happened with Google Music, even if it has a very legitimate reason for existing (also like Google Music). Android is doing pretty well these days.