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Hey, Google, help me prep for the new school year

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My Google Home speaker is humming along just fine these days. And it has started serving a secondary purpose beyond providing weather forecasts and reminding me to buy some flowers for my wife on her birthday: My kids are heading to college soon, and there’s nothing quite like quizzing them (and the speaker) as a way to prepare for their coursework.

I didn’t realize how granular you can get. I know the speaker is essentially an extension of the Google search engine, and I’ve been typing equations, searching for word definitions, and translating phrases into German for years. Lately, I’ve been asking the Assistant for help with these tasks and encouraging my kids to do the same.

One example: It turns out the Assistant knows how to do math. You can ask somewhat complex questions, like what is 456,000 x 42. In a classroom setting, I could see the bot filling in for a classroom tutor, providing answers to questions about calculations or even “checking the work” of students who speak to the bot. (Sadly, my own math skills have fallen behind — I couldn’t remember the right wording for more complex algebraic equations. If you’ve had success with this talking to the bot, send me an email with some examples to try.)

For word definitions, the bot does an amazing job. I asked about the words “egregious” and “copacetic” and the Assistant responded with the answer. No problems. I asked my wife to try, and she didn’t quite pronounce the word “nefarious” correctly (or maybe she wasn’t close enough to the speaker — you never really know) and it didn’t work.

My son-in-law is from Austria, and I’ve seen posts and comments in German on Facebook at times. My problem is I’d like to reply in German, but I can’t speak German and don’t know how to pronounce the words. I tried a practice session. I asked the bot, “How do you say ‘I’m having a wonderful day’ in German?” and it worked. The bot spoke the phrase perfectly. I wish it worked the other way around — if I tried to say a German phrase, I’d like the bot to correct me or try to understand me and then coach my phrasing and pronunciation.

It’s cool to have these interactive sessions, especially with kids around. They already look at me funny most days, but when we started interacting with the bot, I earned some extra credibility because it actually works — the question and answer sessions were helpful.

I could see this expanding much, much further. Maybe Google will be the first company to get there, but I’d love to have a bot start an entire math session. You’d tell the bot your child is in first grade. Right away, the bot could coach the child through some basic lessons, stopping and asking questions or waiting for the child to speak. For an English lesson, how about a course on new words and their meanings? I’d use that myself on the way to work.

And, when a bot can teach me German, I’ll be ready. Hopefully, it will be patient enough to understand that I’m a middle-aged person trying to learn something new.

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