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What is Google Assistant and what can it do?



In a world full of virtual assistants, Google Assistant is a name you probably recognize. The market is full of devices with Google Assistant, but what exactly is it, what does it do and should you use it?

A brief history

Google Assistant had very humble beginnings. It debuted in May 2016 as part of Google’s new messaging app, Allo, and the original Google Home speaker. The speaker is where the Assistant̵

7;s skills really shined for the first time. People could just use their voice to access Google’s extensive knowledge base.

A voice command sent to the Google Assistant in the Allo app on a phone.
Google Assistant in Allo.

Shortly after the initial release, Google Assistant was launched as a built-in feature on the original Google Pixel smartphones. A few months later, it started to appear on other Android smartphones and Wear OS smartwatches. In 2017, Google Assistant was launched as an app for the iPhone and iPad.

Google Assistant is now the successor to the company’s previous virtual assistant, Google Now. While Google Now has mainly focused on pulling information up without your input, the Assistant has added the important ability to have two-way conversations.

google home hub
Google Nest Hub Josh Hendrickson

In the first years, the virtual assistant was mainly only available on smartphones and smart speakers. But in 2018, Google Assistant branched out to devices with displays. Google Assistant can now be found in phones, speakers, cars, smart displays, watches and home devices, and more.

What can Google Assistant do?

Google Assistant has a long list of features and capabilities. At its most basic level, it answers questions. You can ask simple things like, “What is Michigan’s capital?” or “How old is Michael Jordan?” When you do a Google search on your computer or phone, you often see a box at the top of the results. This is where the Google Assistant gets its answers.

Google Assistant is even more useful when it comes to personal results. If you give him access to your Google account and other services, he can provide more than just general information. For example, you can ask if there are events on your calendar, get the local weather forecast, send text messages and more.

Google Assistant is also incredibly useful with smart home devices. It can communicate with a number of popular smart home brands including Philips Hue, SmartThings, Nest, Ring, WeMo and many more. Just look for the ‘Works with Hey Google’ or ‘Works with Google Assistant’ logo.

Of course, it also connects to other Google products, such as the Chromecast.

works with google
Philips

After connecting one of these devices, you can control them via Google Assistant. That means you can say ‘Hey Google, turn off the lights’ or ‘Hey Google, watch ESPN on the TV in the living room’.

Another thing that comes with smart home integration is the Google Home app (Android / iPhone / iPad), which becomes your central hub for all devices.

Physical devices are just part of Google Assistant’s extensive library of skills. It can also connect to apps and web services. You can use it to create a shopping list, read recipes, listen to radio stations or news headlines and much more.

Google Assistant can do all of these things on smartphones and tablets as well. Plus, it can open apps on your device, read aloud notifications, make phone calls, text messages and more. Even without all the fancy smart speakers and home devices, Google Assistant is a handy tool.

A scrolling list of the settings in Google Assistant.
Google Assistant can do … a lot of.

A full list of Google Assistant’s capabilities is far too long to cover here. Most people will never use half the options. The great thing about this, however, is that it can probably do something useful for everyone.

Is Google Assistant always listening?

One of the biggest concerns about Google Assistant is how much it “listens” to you. When you think about how it works, it makes sense that it is ‘always listening’. After all, if it wasn’t, how would it hear your voice commands?

The good thing is that you don’t have to use the “OK Google” command to start Google Assistant. Devices that rely on voice input (such as smart speakers) do need it, but many other devices don’t.

For example, if you are using the Assistant on your phone, you can disable the “OK Google” detection setting and only start it manually. Some devices also have physical mute switches so you can turn off their listening capabilities.

Google

However, if you use voice commands to wake up Google Assistant, it is is always listening. Most importantly, however, it is not always recording. Google Assistant only records when it hears the commands “OK Google” or “Hey Google”.

It’s similar to how dogs understand language. They can be trained to recognize their name and other commands. However, they also have ears, so while they hear everything you say, they really only understand a few words.

The Google Assistant is always listening, but unless you use the magic words, it won’t record or understand what you’re saying.

RELATED: How (and why) to sign up for Google recording storage

Privacy Control for Google Assistant

Even if you know that Google Assistant doesn’t record everything, you may feel uncomfortable with what it does record.

The good news is that Google has several tools that can help you control what Google Assistant stores about you. You can even use Google Assistant to delete your activity. Below are a few examples of commands you can use for this:

  • “Hey Google, delete my last conversation.”
  • “Hey Google, delete today’s activity.”
  • “Hey Google, delete this week’s activity.”

Visit the Assistant activity page in your Google account to dive even deeper. There are options to automatically delete your activity after 3, 18 or 36 months.

enable automatic deletion

If you’re concerned about privacy, these tools allow you to take advantage of the features of Google Assistant, while still retaining some control over what it records.


Google Assistant is an extremely powerful and complex product, which makes it both incredibly useful and somewhat disturbing. It can certainly make your life easier, but you will have to make some concessions to your privacy. It is up to you whether that trade-off is worth it.

RELATED: How to stop your Google Home from recording all your conversations




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