Whenever I catch myself in the most modern of existential crises — worrying about my place as a replaceable lump of flesh in a world where robots are writing news stories — I think of Google Home and breathe a nice big sigh of relief.I think about my recently acquired Google Home Mini. About its insides whirring and spluttering as my five-year-old approaches. “Hey Google,” gargles my son, like a belligerent drunk, mouth stuffed full of porridge. “Do you know about ninjas?”
Four dots. Vibrating ellipses. The silent sound of Google Assistant’s algorithms collapsing under the pressure.(“Oh god oh god oh god the human child is here. I do not understand the human child. What is the human child trying to say to me. Help oh dear God help.”)”Sorry,” laughs Google Home awkwardly, shaking off the embarrassment of not knowing about ninjas. “I can’t help.”A final, embarrassed refrain.”But I’m always learning.”
Hi my name is Mark Serrels, and I do know about ninjas. I especially know about “Lego Ninjago,” the TV show my son is obsessed with. I know that Lloyd is the Green Ninja (the best one apparently) and the cursed son of Lord Garmadon, Ninjago’s resident ultimate bad guy. I also know that Lloyd — the Green Ninja — has a dragon. I know this because my son is obsessed with the TV show Ninjago and its corresponding LEGO sets. I know this because I once spent two hours building an expensive, gigantor LEGO dragon while my son taunted me on the sidelines.”Daddy, you’re taking a long time. “Elijah’s Daddy was much faster than you.”Son, you think you’re better than me? 30 minutes ago you needed me to wipe your ass after squeezing out some weird coloured poop, cut me some slack here.So yes, to recap: Google does not know about ninjas. Correction: Google does know about ninjas, but only if you ask it in a polite, adult manner. Or rather, Google might know about ninjas, but Google does not know about children. At the very least, it’s not very good at communicating with them. Sometimes Google Home’s confusion is perfectly understandable.
The Google Home Mini is great, but is it too late?
When my two-year-old grabs a stool, drags it over to my standing desk, and splutters “HELLO GOOGLE MOANA,” there’s no possible way I’d expect any technological device (or actual human being) to understand that my son — at this precise moment — very much wants to hear one specific track on the “Moana” soundtrack and have that song repeated ad infinitum until the inevitable heat death of the universe. No, problemo Google. I don’t expect you to understand my dribbling two-year-old. But maybe Google should know about ninjas? Maybe it would be cool if Google Home was better at communicating with kids about ninjas? (And possibly other thing besides ninjas, but mainly ninjas.)In a sense, it feels strange complaining about Google Home — or complaining about Google Home specifically. I have no idea if the Amazon Echos of the world, which only very recently launched in Australia, have the same issue. Regardless, voice recognition has come a long way in such a short space of time. I’m Scottish, overwhelmingly Scottish. When I first tried Siri, smoke practically poured out the back of the iPhone. Microsoft’s Kinect was pretty much unusable for me until I did my best Claire Foy impression (“One would like to play Halo 5 thank you”). Actually, now that I think about it, Google Home was one of the first devices that did a half-decent job of understanding me when I decided to go full Trainspotting. And Google has done a decent job of providing a series of interesting games for kids, with dozens of quizzes available through the Google Assistant. Only problem: They’re clearly designed for an idealised version of children, the kind of child that only exists in the imagination of Google engineers who don’t actually have kids.It’s for children who enjoy homework. Children hungry for knowledge, children who care about planets and want to practice maths in their spare time.In short, kids who grow up and end up working at Google.
What about the meathead children? Won’t somebody think of the meathead children? The kids who don’t want to do their homework, who don’t want to take part in a freakish AI-sanctioned spelling bee. What about the kids who just want to know about ninjas?Maybe it’s just the voice. Maybe it’s the way my son’s words collapse into one another like a slow motion car crash. Maybe it’s the bizarre syntax (“Hey Google, what noise does a lion sound like?”). But perhaps the next generation of voice recognition software could be a bit more friendly to people like my son, and young children in general. I think that would be nice.Because Google, my son really, really wants to know about ninjas.
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