Google’s New Action Blocks Are Siri Shortcuts for Android
Google announced its new Action Blocks feature for Android this week. Action Blocks let users create pre-set Google Assistant commands and shortcuts, similar to Apple’s Siri Shortcuts option.
Teaching Commands to Google Assistant
The Android Action Block app offers a variety of tasks that Google Assistant and Android can carry out. Each block is given a name, an image on the device’s home screen, and a spoken command for Google Assistant. The Action Blocks can range widely from custom names for phone calls to saying goodnight as a way to shut off lights and turn on the alarm systems.
The Action Blocks share many similarities with Siri Shortcuts. Both allow for custom voice commands to run apps and routines which shorten the steps and number of taps needed to complete the tasks. However, Action Blocks is still in the testing phase. The more mature Siri Shortcuts added several additional features in the wake of the iOS 13 updates announced in June. Siri now has the Parameters feature, which prompts the voice assistant to ask follow-up questions and create multiple steps from a single command. It can also automate its shortcuts based on circumstances, like playing music when asked to turn on lights in the morning.
The point of both Action Blocks and Shortcuts is to make using voice assistants feel more natural, to turn computer commands into a comfortable conversation. In Google’s case, Action Blocks are also explicitly aimed at improving the accessibility of Google Assistant and Android devices, part of the DIVA initiative it launched at the I/O conference this year to make its products more accessible. Google says it wants to apply features like Action Blocks to improve the quality of life of people with cognitive and physical disabilities.
Voice technology’s potential to improve the lives of people with disabilities is vast and developers are still early in exploring the possibilities. Amazon launched an Alexa feature to help blind people identify cans and jars last month while independent companies such as LifePod and Pillo Health have created smart displays to aid in caring for older people.
While the Action Blocks feature is built around helping people with disabilities, a much wider audience might want to try it out. The Shortcuts feature is in part a way Apple is trying to make up for Siri’s limitations by adding new customization options. Google Assistant has a much bigger catalog of commands than Siri and is generally rated as the superior AI. With Action Blocks, it may be only a matter of time before Google Assistant catches up or surpasses Siri in customization as well.