Conversational search is now available for desktops, laptops via the latest Chrome browser

Soon “Ok Google, what is the weather like” is all you need to say into your Google search box and voilà, the results appear not as text, but a stern female voice reads out the weather forecast.

Google’s conversational search, which has been around on mobile platforms such as Google Voice Search on Android and iOS, is now available on desktops and laptops via Google Chrome. This, and many other exciting Google features and enhancements were demonstrated at the sixth edition of Google I/O held at San Francisco, U.S., from May 15 to 17.

Google I/O (input/output) is the annual developer-focussed conference organised by Google in which around 6,000 developers participated this year. At the conference, one of the most highly-anticipated technology events, Google, the search engine the world turns to, announced that it is preparing for the “end of search as we know it.”

Knowledge Graph

Until Google incorporated its Knowledge Graph a couple of years ago, search was a mundane affair. Users entered keywords and expected Google to spit out its indexed pages, fetching results containing the key words in the search string. This, in some ways, was like finding out a word in a long word processing document using CTRL+F, but on a much bigger scale.

Knowledge Graph, which uses semantic search, gives users a unified search experience, providing detailed and structured information on a topic, rather than a narrowly bound set of results. Searchers can thus get their queries resolved without having to check multiple sites. The trick lies in relating keywords to information relevant to the search string used by the user. Google’s objective is to create a ‘knowledge engine’ out of the information engine that it now is. Elements of Knowledge Graph already allow for automated search prompts, personalised results and more importantly ‘contextual search’.

Let us take an example to show how old-style Google would be different from its smarter avatar.

Try searching ‘IPL’ and you can expect results to show links to the website of the Indian Premier League (IPL) and score cards from recent matches. But with contextual search, Google will give you more: news articles on the arrests of IPL players and owners, which would take precedence over the official website.

In effect, Google’s Knowledge Graph understands that the IPL is not just about cricket, but also the controversies that surround it, based on what users have been searching about IPL.

Answer, converse and anticipate

In his keynote address at Google I/O, Amit Singhal, senior vice-president of Google Search, the man who rewrote Google’s search engine in 2001, revealed plans to further improve Google’s search capability.

The Knowledge Graph, which has been answering information queries, will now be able to answer personal queries such as “How far is the office of The Hindu from here?” Google tries to learn your ‘here’ by looking up your Internet Protocol address and then proceeds to give you directions to any place that you may want to go.

Mr. Singhal went on to say he was living his dream of building the Star Trek computer where one could ask the computer a question and it would answer.

Conversational search in Google, now made available on the latest Chrome browser (version 27), does precisely this. Users can click on the microphone icon at the end of Google search bar, and ask questions. Google records these queries and sends it to its servers for transcription, which is then searched with Knowledge Graph. It then displays the most suitable search results, and if it has a direct answer, it reads it out to the user.

Another enhancement projected at Google I/O was Google’s ability to ‘anticipate’ queries. Once a user searches for a particular query, based on Google’s profiling of users and Knowledge Graph’s interpretation of their query, Google anticipates what the user might search next. For instance, if a user fills in “population of India” in the search dialog, Google may expect particular users to next compare the population with that of the U.S. or China, which is based on the trend of searches made in the past, and automatically shows these results.

To trigger it

As of now, to trigger voice search, the microphone icon in the search bar must be clicked or a keyboard shortcut Ctrl+Shift+Period (Mac: Command-Shift-Period) to enable the voice input.

The “Ok Google” voice trigger will be updated soon, which was demonstrated at Google I/O. You will just have to say “Ok Google,” to trigger the search, bypassing the keyboard entirely.

It’s funny too

Of course, the search engine has a good sense of humour too. If you ask Google, “How are you?” it replies: “Empathy is an admirable trait, but misdirected when applied to machines.” Try “What is my name?” and you get: “Oh no! Did you forget your name?” And then it lists results on medication for amnesia.

The accuracy of the search results on conversational search on Chrome is astounding. Complex and accented queries in most cases are transcribed perfectly, with the ‘Google lady’ also reading out the introduction from Wikipedia for most general topics.

Google would have required access to a huge database of voice samples to achieve these incredibly accurate results. Indeed, it did this through its GOOG-411 service, a free calling service deployed in the U.S., which it discontinued in 2011.

By then it had apparently accumulated enough to train the transcription engine, which it integrated to its search service.