Meet the team giving the 'OK Google' bot its personality

Meet the man behind Google Assistant's personality – Ryan Germick
Meet the man behind Google Assistant's personality – Ryan Germick
Key Points
  • Ryan Germick leads the team trying to give Google's artificial intelligence-powered virtual assistant a personality that he describes as like a "cool librarian." 
  • The goal is to make Assistant fun and playful, without pretending to be human. 
Ryan Germick leads the personality team at Google.
Jeniece Pettitt, CNBC

Google Assistant, the digital bot powering Google's Home smart speakers and available as an app for Android and iOS phones, is supposed to feel like a "cool librarian."

That's according to Ryan Germick, who leads the team responsible for shaping the product's personality.

In the past few years, all the major tech companies have released their own version of an AI assistant, and experts predict the smart speaker market will continue to grow. Adoption is particularly important for Google, which needs to defend its retail ad sales turf against Amazon (though very few people are actually using smart speakers to shop, yet).

Given the array of options on the market, Germick and his team of filmmakers, comedians, and "empathy experts" want to make sure that its Assistant stands out by being playful, not just capable.

It will never be exactly hip, but it will goof around if users prod it.

"If we're doing our jobs properly, there should hopefully be some sort of emotional attachment to the Assistant — you should be sad if it falls into the sink and goes haywire!" he says. "I think we're just scratching the surface in terms of creating a character that you really want to spend time with that you feel provides value in your life."

Alhough the product has a personality, it's not meant to seem like a real person. There is no backstory to the character —it's not, for example, a 27-year-old from Colorado who's into kite-surfing, Germick quips — nor will give a straight answer if you ask its favorite food.

"One of our principles is that we speak like a human, but we never pretend to be one," he says.

Even if Assistant did try to seem human, the technology is still very limited in how well it could actually mimic a real conversation. (Although Google did stir up an ethical debate earlier this year when one of its other products, called Duplex, imitated a human's verbal tics on automated phone calls.).

"[Voice assistants] are so new that we're constantly trying to find where the right line is," Germick adds. "That's one of the reasons it's so exciting to be in this space."

Jeniece Pettitt, CNBC

While the personality team crafts a wide-range of answers — preparing Assistant to respond to requests like "Will you marry me?" alongside topical queries like "Who's going to win the Super Bowl?" — they're only writing a tiny fraction of the answers that the Assistant spits out. It pulls most of its answers from the web or from personalized sources, like to-do lists, schedules or Spotify mixes.

Germick says that one of his favorite things about working on the Assistant is how it makes technology more intuitively accessible for people. Spoken commands don't require users to dig through phone menus or learn a new interface, for example, which can be particularly useful for seniors or people with disabilities.

Overall, Germick compares his job to building playgrounds.

"It's serious, but you're creating something that's really fun."