Google’s Gemini Assistant is fantastic and frustrating

I don’t know how to say this, but sometimes the emotional labor of opening another app on my phone and typing some text is just too much.

I need to collect Airbnb reservation details from two different confirmation emails and send them to my friends. Or I want to figure out when to leave this coffee shop to take the bus home at a certain time. These aren’t difficult things to do, but they require enough tapping in different apps or scrolling between screens that I start to think, you know what? I don’t really need to send that email yet. I’ll just roll with it and hope for the best with the bus schedule.

These are the jobs I would like AI to take over for me. AI, including Google’s new Gemini assistant, isn’t quite ready yet. But Gemini feels like a taste of what that AI future will be could be look – provided you are well entrenched in Google services.

Gemini is Google’s AI chatbot, formerly known as Bard. It’s an app you download from the Google Play Store, but it’s actually part of the Google app that’s probably already on your phone if it runs Android. Once it’s up and running, you can replace the default Google Assistant with Gemini and summon it in the same way as the old Assistant. But instead of just setting timers and telling you the weather, the device can do everything Bard did: answer complex questions, make suggestions, and read your email, if you let it.

The latter is important. Gemini is not nearly as good a conversation partner as ChatGPT, but the ability to hook into Gmail, Google Maps and Google Docs makes it really interesting.

I asked him to summarize the details of that Airbnb reservation, and he did, pulling information from two different emails and putting them together into a neat little bulleted list. Then I asked it to compose an email to my friends with all the details. When I ask AI to write an email or text message, the results are usually too embarrassing to actually send to anyone. To my surprise it was fine.

It doesn’t sound like much, but it’s the first time I’ve been really impressed with AI as a tool for getting things done. Maybe I’m lacking imagination, but ChatGPT bores me pretty quickly; there are only so many times I can brainstorm business plans for a retro arcade or ideas for vacations. What I really want is help with the pile of digital crap I’m constantly wading through live my life.

If Gemini comes up with something for me, like a recipe or a packing list, I can put it somewhere

Unfortunately, Gemini is not like that yet. I think it’s a lot more useful than the regular Assistant, and there’s a lot I like about it now. There’s a little G icon at the bottom of every answer it gives you, which you can use to search Google and check Gemini’s work. Since AI tends to make things up every now and then, that’s kind of important.

I also appreciate that when Gemini comes up with something for me, like a recipe or a packing list, I have somewhere to put it. Gemini can export responses directly to Google Docs or Gmail. When I get the same kind of things from ChatGPT it feels like they are floating around in space until I copy and paste them somewhere. They are saved in your history, but you know what I mean.

However, Gemini isn’t very good at picking up context. I told him I planned to ride my bike to the next neighborhood and asked him to suggest some things I could do once I got there. It spewed out a wall of text with suggestions including: I’m not kidding, scuba diving, seeing live theater, and gambling at the casino. Technically, you can do all those things in Burien, Washington, but not on a whim in the middle of the day. These are also not places I would just roll to on my bike.

In situations like this, Gemini feels like a little “let me Google Maps that for you” machine. ChatGPT’s voice chat, on the other hand, suggested I visit a few parks or a coffee shop. It was also asked me if I had something else in mind for my visit, and when I said I might want to buy a book, it suggested a specific bookstore. So thoughtful! Later, however, Gemini’s Google Maps integration proved more useful: I asked for a bus route home, and Gemini gave me the correct route, while ChatGPT would have left me waiting for a bus that only arrives every 30 minutes.

Talking to Gemini feels like talking to a Google search results page. When you say “Hey Google” and ask a question, the answer is spoken to you. Otherwise you just read text. And often it is one lot of text; this assistant can use an editor. I’m also surprised that Gemini can’t access my calendar, but there isn’t currently an extension for it like there is for Gmail and Docs. If I want to add something to my calendar, I have to switch back to the regular Assistant. At that point I just make a damn calendar appointment myself.

Talking to Gemini feels like talking to a Google search results page

A decade ago, smart assistants like Siri and Alexa were pitched as the next big way to interact with our devices, but across the industry we’ve seen their progress stagnate. At this point, Gemini is a completely optional assistant. But it’s also easy to see how it could eventually replace Google Assistant as the default, especially since Google has scaled back Assistant features in recent history. We may have just reached the limits of what non-AI voice assistants can do reliably.

To me, swapping Gemini for the usual Google Assistant feels like a low-stakes gamble. I trained myself a long time ago not to use voice assistants because they never seem to be able to do what I want. Gemini can still set my timers and tell me if it’s going to rain, so why not bet on something smarter to help me with my daily activities? Hopefully it will learn a few lessons from ChatGPT along the way. In the meantime, I have to go to my diving lesson.

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