Google Assistant Is Getting Even More Lifelike in Time for the Holidays

The Google Assistant has already taken a number of strides toward becoming a more human-like assistant this year. Its now accessible Duplex update gave it the ability to call restaurants and book a reservation on your behalf. Now, the company is working on making the actual interactions between A.I. and humans more civil, too.

Indeed, the Google Assistant will now respond more positively every time you end a command with “Please” and “Thank You.” This “Pretty Please” feature was first teased during Google I/O in April is now available. It’s a feature that can seem a little gimmicky at first blush — who needs a polite robot, after all? — but it’s an important step toward developing A.I. that can have actual conversations by picking up on more nuanced patterns of speech.

“The assistant understands and responds to positive conversation with polite reinforcement,” said Google’s VP of engineering, Scott Huffman. “We’ve been consulting with families and child development experts and we plan to offer Pretty Please as an option for families later this year.”

The feature was rolled out Thursday and is available on every device that is compatible with the Google Assistant. This includes all Google smart speakers, smart display, Android phones, certain smart TVs, and a multitude of other gadgets.

Demo of Pretty Please in action.

Don’t worry the Google Assistant won’t yell at you if you aren’t polite, the object is instead to reward users for their comity by providing a more unique response.

It won’t reprimand you if they fail to say “please” or even if they straight up insult it, though that’s not to say that Google’s A.I. can’t discern when you’re being kind of a jerk. When Inverse tested the limits of the feature with some light verbal abuse, the assistant definitely moved into “dealing with a difficult customer” mode as you can see in the below exchange. 

google assistant response
Good one, Google.

What’s The Reason For Pretty Please?

In addition to refining the types of speech Google Assistant can recognize, the update is also a response to the mounting concern that digital assistants will turn children into demanding, impatient little tyrants (more so than they already are). A number of parents have mused about this publicly, including the prominent venture capitalist Hunter Walk who worried in a blog post whether engaging with Alexa too much was “turning my kid into an “asshole.”

“A concern we’ve heard from many parents including people on the team who have children is, are kids learning to be bossy and demanding?” writes Huffman. “So Amazon, you clearly have a hit on your hands. Can I request one thing? A kid-mode where the Echo only responds to ‘Alexa, please….’ as opposed to just ‘Alexa.’”

These concerns are not without founding. While the scholarship on the interactions between children and digital assistants is still in its early stages, a study from researchers at MIT recently found that children tend to anthropomorphize technology in the same way they do their stuffed animals. In other words, they tend to see entities like Siri, Alexa, or Google Assistant them as human too.

“If nuances in the user’s tone can affect how the digital servants respond,” wrote Technology Review’s Rachel Metz back in 2017 when the MIT study first came out. “It’s possible that kids who use them will become more adept at communicating with others.”

To that end, Google’s polite assistant is no gimmick. That little tyrant could wind up being your boss some day.