When Software Just Gets Smarter

The last time we were in Japan, six years ago, using Google Maps was pretty frustrating. We didn’t understand the Japanese language and addresses made no sense to us. We got lost multiple times a day and often had to find a person on the street who spoke english to help us out.

It is a pretty stark difference this trip. Google Maps seems to understand much of what it did not the last time around. The directions are great and we have yet to get lost.

Last night, I directed a cab driver in Kyoto who did not speak english using Google Maps on my phone and pointing right or left or straight each time we got to an intersection. We got to dinner on time and everyone, including our cab driver, was relieved.

I think this is a great example of the power of machine learning and other technologies that software makers are using to make their apps smarter and smarter. And that leads to better user experiences and delivers more value.

Much of this happens behind the scenes and is never announced as a new feature. The software just works better. And we come to expect this of our software and we take it for granted.

But it is pretty magical when you have the opportunity, like we are having in Japan with Google Maps, to compare an app to its younger version and see how much it has improved. You can see the software getting smarter over time and that’s kind of amazing.


Comments (Archived):

  1. kenberger

    Another recent example of this is Google Translate, putting it in auto translate mode and having the two parties talk back and forth to the phone. We have a new nanny here in Berlin who speaks only Russian, and she and I use this constantly and it can be magic, but…We have come a very long way since Jamie siminoff’s (from Ring) SimulScribe/ phone tag. However, we are still not there yet with this current app because it frequently makes embarrassing mistakes. This is the reason that the Google buds with the chat feature wasn’t quite a success.Fred- I’d be curious to see you give this a go in Japan and let us know. https://uploads.disquscdn.c

    1. William Mougayar

      yup, i was thinking of Google Translate too. it’s very useful.

    2. Raisa Berger

      This translation btw, is spot on.

    3. Kirsten Lambertsen

      Cool! Do you think either of you is learning the other’s language as a side benefit?

      1. kenberger

        see also my other comment for context: https://avc.com/2018/10/whe…Great question: yup, I do indeed understand quite a bit of Russian, only from all the family interaction, which is considerable, and this tool helps further because I can also read Cyrillic and this helps me practice that too.

        1. Kirsten Lambertsen


      2. Donna Brewington White

        I know that for me, on a recent trip, it did help improve my skills.

    4. Donna Brewington White

      Ha — you beat me to it. On a recent trip to France, I tried to use French language skills as much as possible but in some instances, such as directing a paid driver, too much was at stake not to use G-translate. Actually, one exchange on a long drive turned into an entire casual conversation mostly on G-translate.Since I knew Fred regularly travels to France, I, too, wondered if he used G-Translate there.

      1. kenberger

        Most Asian language constructions are vastly different from those of Latin languages, so as tough as English to Russian to French is, those use cases are relatively trivial in many (but not all) cases of going back and forth to Asian languages. So I’m particularly interested to try this in Japan but haven’t in recent years.I’m not even talking about the alphabet differences, which actually are the easy parts for AI to handle, compared to a human, in most cases.

        1. Donna Brewington White

          Hadn’t thought of this. Very interesting point.

      2. Girish Mehta

        Did you use it in Paris or elsewhere ?

        1. Donna Brewington White

          In Paris was with my daughter most of the time who is relatively fluent, but was on my own more in Provence (she is in school there). This was a factor.I had been told that many Parisians speak English, but at least two drivers spoke almost none. It was actually a driver in Paris who introduced me to the GT conversational mode.In Provence, it was rare to find a driver who spoke English, same in the open air markets. Even ruling out the daughter-factor, G-Translate was much more necessary in Provence. Definitely more of an immersion experience which I Ioved! (Loved Paris too.)

          1. Girish Mehta

            I think it has changed a little from the ’90s and more Parisians speak English now.Separately, to your comment about G-maps, I agree that it is a great tool.When in Paris, though, I am in flaneuring mode πŸ™‚ (the word flaneur itself originated in 19th century French literary circles). I avoid G-maps when possible there, although I am sure that the “knowledge” that it exists in my pocket is partly what allows me to wander without reference to it. Part of a larger trend for me in life to depend less on stuff while still continuing to use it (e.g. coffee).Interesting how our preferences in life change over time. (Although the “end of history” fallacy suggests that this too shall change).

          2. Donna Brewington White

            Great word. Often learn something new from you.Our trip to Paris was only four days while en route from London to Provence (this past summer) and as a first visit was packing a lot in with tons of advice from friends (including William). Stay in Provence was more leisurely.Next time intend to spend more time in Paris “flaneuring.” Left a piece of my heart in Paris. Actually, France in general.What is a Paris must-do in your opinion? (Besides flaneuring.)

    5. someone

      Oh please, let us not misidentify Siminoff as any kind of AI guru

      1. kenberger

        I probably understand where that remark comes from.Still, some of us here (me and Fred included) enjoyed checking out these offerings, and potential investment opportunities, when we had a real need for such solutions and there weren’t many good alternatives.

  2. jason wright

    Fuck Google.If this carries on films like Lost in Translation will never get made. Therein lies one of the great danger of ‘big tech’, the destruction of culture and diversity and human interaction.It’s going to get to the point where we will need a Declaration of the Right to be Human.I find it interesting that ‘war’ appears in both ‘hardware’ and ‘software’.

    1. JamesHRH

      Fighting the waves here JW.

  3. Chris O'Donnell

    Ironically, I was just complaining on my blog yesterday about the lack of innovation in Google Maps. https://odonnellweb.com/pel

  4. Alex Murphy

    I was in India last week and spent 24 hours on the road going to various cities. I had the exact same experience with my driver, on an 8 hour drive into the Mountains. Left, Straight, Right. That was the extent of conversation we could have. Along the way, Maps didn’t make one single mistake. Even through construction everywhere and cows crossing the road.(side note, there were many places where there were cross walks, the funniest thing I saw on the road was a couple of cows actually using one whereas not one human ever used one that I saw)To anyone that is disappointed by the state of the software, you need to reflect on what life was like with the old fold up maps. Your disappointment comes from an inflated set of expectations.

  5. kenberger

    the assumptions you incorrectly make here are about as insightful, non-contributing, and in this case highly inappropriate in tone, as most of your comments on this blog.but just maybe that gives us diversity here in the AVC comments community, so i’ll salute you on that, fellow member.

    1. JLM

      .Worse is the babies. New grand daughter and she can’t ever tell me what’s going on. Luckily, her grandmother never lets me near her anyway. For safety sake, never get between Mimi and the baby.My own children had Mexican nannies and spoke Spanish before English. Never had a problem.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

      1. kenberger

        my wife and 3yo speak fluent Russian, and we’ve had a preference to have nannies also have that skill (along with the local language where we live at the moment, which is German right now). It’s not essential for *me* to also be able to understand all, as I think you are also implying is true for you.That’s the not-so-Obvious that someone here on the thread didn’t Captain so well.

        1. JLM

          .Languages are a huge skill. I wish I could speak all the languages of places I’ve lived. I did learn to curse in about seven different languages.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

          1. PhilipSugar

            Funny we have 7 different languages spoken at home in our office. I can curse you out in Romain like no other.

          2. jason wright

            i can swear in seven languages (if i count Scottish and American English as distinct variants).

          3. PhilipSugar

            Including the “sheep shagging welch”

          4. jason wright

            i think they take that as a badge of honour epithet when coming from the English.

          5. PhilipSugar

            We had a Scottsman tell us that as we were watching Rugby Union Championships in England.It started off at the Scottsman being cheap, the Irish man being drunk, and the English man having his head up his arse, and that was the punch line.We learned it was a death penalty for stealing sheep, not as bad for shagging.

          6. jason wright

            Yes, it’s a very united Kingdom πŸ™‚

  6. Ro Gupta

    In this case, it may just be that they have improved their sources for Japan map data. Google and Apple have been trying to up their game for years in a number of Asian countries that have imposed restrictions on foreign companies trying to map there.

  7. JaredMermey

    Much easier to notice the improvements when the same use case presents itself several years apart. We take for granted the small day-to-day improvements as they are much more difficult to see/feel.

  8. JLM

    .Makes it pretty important to keep one’s phone charged or to carry a charging battery, no?It was a nightmare trying to navigate Japan in the 1970s. I used to catch a space available hop from Osan. All I had was a map. Long before cell phones.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    1. jason wright

      i would suggest two phones (one with dual sim slots for travel) and a charging battery. I recommend the Anker brand. yes.

      1. JLM

        .Never leave home without it.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

    2. Donna Brewington White

      Never had my phone been more of a lifeline than when traveling in another country. Obviously people traveled before smartphones but hard to imagine.

      1. JLM

        .Back in the day, used to have gas company maps.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

        1. Donna Brewington White

          When I moved to Los Angeles, I learned the city by getting lost — a lot. Finally a friend gave me a Thomas Brothers map book as a gift. Practical but ruined the fun.

          1. JLM

            .When I was considering new markets, I would hire a helicopter and fly over the city identifying every neighborhood and the big roads.In two hours, I had the lay of the city figured out as if I were a native. I knew where every neighborhood was and what streets created it or took you there.Now, with GPS, I just punch it in and hang on for dear life.JLMwww.themusingsofthebigredca…

  9. Andrew Cashion

    Had a couple instances now where someone is describing how to get somewhere on the ground, and I piece together where they are talking about from the sky.Then you tell them, “oh yeah theres also a processing plant over there and…”

  10. RameshJain

    My dream is to have a Personal Health Navigator that will guide me in my lifestyle and related health decisions.What if an app could guide people to their health goals, similar to how GPS navigation directs people to a desired destination? Did a blog on this: https://medium.com/@jain49/

  11. Dan T

    For some reason this makes me sad. My kids won’t get to experience the same challenges I did in visiting foreign countries where you cant speak or read the local language.Meeting and visiting the home of a Vietnamese family and relying on the children to help with translation.Asking random strangers on the sidewalk in Japan to help me get somewhere on a map.Carrying my hotels biz card with me in Taxis in Thailand to make sure I could get home and having the concierge write out the destination address for me.Trying to negotiate with a chinese street vendor for a simple souvenir.Most people are really friendly everywhere.Most people like to help people.Life is easier with English as a first language.

    1. kenberger

      This is a GREAT point. I have epic amounts of experience running around the world with just a Lonely Planet book. I say “just”, but really that is an incredible tool, in some ways better than all the mobile tools out there (Foursquare, Yelp, GMaps etc) because LP curates things and just gives me a few picks, which are highly likely to suit my taste (downside is the print is inherently outdated, place might not even be there anymore). I feel like this built true skills in me at a young age.But now, having all these modern services certainly makes one much “dumber”– I’m rendered sort of useless when my phone battery dies.

  12. Toby Bryce

    I love Google maps very much, and agree generally with the message of your post. It’s gotten so much better over the past decade and is truly invaluable at this point.(Secondarily complemented with Uber / Uber equivalent so you don’t have to explain where you’re going to a Japanese or Vietnamese or Indonesian cabbie, and argue about the fare.)However I can’t help thinking we lose something, possibly a lot, with the outsourcing of navigation to the device in our hand. (Which I have completely done – even getting around Brooklyn and city neighborhoods I know, to find the fastest route.)There is a serendipity to be gained from being lost, or wandering, and finding your way around a place. There is also an engagement with your surroundings that you don’t have when you are simply following the directions on your phone.This first occurred to me in any meaningful way when I was in Phnom Penh a few years ago. I had pre-purchased data roaming that I’d used in other places that trip, and it was supposed to work in Cambodia. But it didn’t.So I was reduced / reverted to carrying a paper map in my hands and figuring things out analog. Which took a day or two of being and feeling like a lost tourist – made easier by the fact that PNH center is a numbered and gridded layout – but was fun and satisfying as we got the lay of the land and found our way around town.Just like travel used to be until the early aughts.I’m not about to give up Google Maps – which again I love, although IMO they need to stop (at least slow down, rethink and rationalize) junking the map up with their “suggestions” and other commercialization – but I do try to put it in my pocket, resist the urge to pull it back out, and just wander sometimes – whether in a new place or even a less familiar part of NYC.

    1. PhilipSugar

      I love this post.

  13. Donna Brewington White

    Big Waze fan. Not sure if it’s my imagination but G-Maps seems much better since Google’s purchase of Waze. On a recent trip to Europe, walking miles per day, G-Maps was especially reliable. Is Waze not as reliable outside the U.S.?

  14. Frank Ronchetti

    As opposed to Waze, which just seems to get worse with time. Spends several minutes at the beginning of drives now tellng me to proceed to the route, takes me across busy four-lane streets where there are no stop lights, and when I take a different route, I often save a few minutes. I used to love it, but not anymore.

  15. LE

    Meanwhile today I just noticed that Amazon, through the app, is doing the following:a) Tells you how many stops they are from your house. [1]b) Sends you a photo of the package on your porch.I get most of my Amazon deliveries at the office or Amazon locker.I have not seen this there … yet.[1] Do you realize how great efficiency wise this is for them? If someone sees that they are ‘7 stops away’ and the map shows that they are in their neighborhood (what they did they showed a map view) people are not going to leave the house if they don’t have to they will wait for the driver. Total win for Amazon. Plus they get my ‘doctors waiting room theory’ award as well. You think things are ‘in process’ and as a customer is more likely to be happy. Others do this as well but it’s typically when you would be on hold (and annoyed at the wait). Seeing ‘7 more stops’ but that the truck was a few blocks away (in a residential area not midtown manhattan) was great. Not that I was there waiting but still made me feel positive toward amazon.

    1. PhilipSugar

      Get a Volvo they put it in your trunk! Yes family pitch.

  16. Paul Momoh, PhD

    Google recently hiked its prices for mapping services and there was absolutely nothing anyone could do about it. As our dependency on centralized maps increase, so will Google’s power to do whatever the hell it wants. As with other centralized services, today we love and sing it praises only to cry from remorse tomorrow when it abuses power we granted it. I much prefer a decentralized map curated by the people for the people. Thankfully, there’s one such map on the horizon. It’s called FOAM Space. Look it up.

  17. sigmaalgebra

    That’s some good utility from a LOT of data and software but otherwise essentially just routine with little protection from secret sauce or other barriers to entry. So, by routine, but significantly expensive, effort, the work could be duplicated by others. But in this case I suspect that Google is correct: At least for now, I doubt that any other effort will choose to compete directly with Google Maps.It may be that USPS, UPS, FedEx, DHS, Uber, Lyft, Amazon, Wal-Mart, EMS efforts, traffic planners, utilitiy companies, various US government agencies, etc. will regard this mapping data as too important to leave just to Google, pull together a consortium, get the data, with frequent updates, and make the data open and freely available to everyone. Actually, of course, much of the data is from the US Federal Government and open now. With more of the data there can be more applications software.I doubt that Google will have this mapping data and its applications all to themselves much longer.Actually apparently much of the Google Maps data is a bit too old already: E.g., a recent Nova program described replacing a traditional New England wooden covered bridge a little SW of Albany. Looking up the image at Google shows an inserted symbol for the new bridge but not the bridge itself.

  18. Robert Labarre

    It is only going to get better and better. Yesterday, MIT formally announced the opening of a vast new College of Computing, based on a $350 Million gift from Stephen Schwarzman, the CEO and Chairman from Blackstone. In his remarkable announcement, the President of MIT acknowledged the ubiquity of computing and rise of AI in particular as ‘reshaping geopolitics, our economy, our daily lives and the very definition of work’.MIT, where Fred and i were fraternity brothers 35 years ago, will thus contribute greatly to the potential realizations of the (wonderful & sinister) predictions of Steven Hawking’s final book– published today– in which he reportedly did not rule out future time travel, AI outsmarting humans, alien life, and inter-planetary travel within a hundred yearsWhen Fred and I were at MIT (Class of ’83), it was quite routine for one to be a Pre-med student and become an invasive Cardiologist (me) or to be a Mechanical Engineer and become a Venture Capitalist (Fred). Today, I would think that any student who has the privilege to study there should fully immerse in AI. Otherwise, the student will be missing the opportunity to shape the future; you can be a pre-med or an engineer at many other schools.

    1. sigmaalgebra

      For yourToday, I would think that any student who has the privilege to study there should fully immerse in AI. Otherwise, the student will be missing the opportunity to shape the future; you can be a pre-med or an engineer at many other schools.IMHO, for anything like what is new and called AI now, to “immerse in AI” is essentially a waste of time. The main upside is to train your BS detector.Compared with the classics and potential of pure/applied math, physical science, and much of engineering, nearly all of AI is baby stuff as in Pampers.My high end research university Ph.D. is in pure and applied math; my research is in applied math complete with theorems and proofs.I was long in an IBM Watson lab project in AI. I regarded the AI as junk and for one of the main customer problems we were trying to solve with AI, hopeless to do well, invented some applied math that totally blows the doors off our work and AFAIK all other AI work for that problem.AI is a case of hype, 99 44/100% hype.The main AI successes are based on empirical curve fitting, especially 100 year old regression analysis, together with some more recent work on the empirical fitting possibilities of sigmoid curves.The good results are very, very narrow and nothing like intelligence of a human, other primate, any of the mammals, and even some other species.There is a long, terrific history of applied math; the best of AI adds a few drops to that bucket, swimming pool, or Lake Superior.

  19. kenberger

    I’ve long enjoyed your comments here over the years, @le_on_avc:disqus, particularly notable for their high diligence– you clearly spend time and thought on them. This one is no different.Sincere thanks, for all, as someone who really enjoys ALL of the cross-talk here.