Google’s future is useful, creepy and everywhere: nine things learned at I/O
With Google Assistant coming to the iPhone, the company hopes to kill off Siri and wants to ‘see’ inside your home as it reiterates its AI-first approach
There were whoops and cheers from developers as Google announced the incremental ways it is strengthening its grip on many aspects of people’s lives at its annual developer conference, Google I/O.
There were no jaw-dropping major product launches nor executives proclaiming their utopian vision of the future (ahem, Mark Zuckerberg). Instead there was a showcase of features, powered by artificial intelligence, designed to make people more connected – and more reliant on Google.
“We are focused on our core mission of organising the world’s information for everyone and approach this by applying deep computer science and technical insights to solve problems at scale,” said CEO Sundar Pichai.
By combining the personal data harvested from its users with industry-leading (and human Go player beating) artificial intelligence, Google is squeezing itself into spaces in our everyday interactions it hasn’t been before, filling in the gaps and oozing into new territory like a sticky glue that is becoming harder and harder to escape.
Here’s what the key I/O announcements tell us about Google’s future.
1. AI is Google’s unique selling point
Google reiterated that the company has shifted from a mobile-first to an AI-first approach. This means using AI at the core of all of its new products, whether that’s to improve image recognition in Google Assistant or for beating human players at Go.
2. Google wants to ‘see’ as well as ‘hear’ your surroundings
Lens is Google’s answer to Facebook’s augmented reality Camera Effects platform. It comprises a set of vision-based computing capabilities, combined into Google Assistant and the Photos app, that works to “understand” what you’re looking at. So you can point the camera at a flower and it will identify the species or automatically connect to a wifi network by showing the camera the log-in details printed on the sticker on the router. You can also hold your camera up to a restaurant in the street and see reviews.
3. Google Assistant is getting smarter
Google’s equivalent of Siri, GoogleAssistant, is embedded in Android devices including smartphones, watches and Google Home. Google’s Scott Huffman noted that Assistant would become even more conversational over the coming months, allowing you accomplish tasks with a quick chat.
In addition to having voice recognition, Google Assistant, drawing on Lens, can now take in, understand and have conversations about what you see. For example, if you are in Japan but don’t read Japanese, you can hold the Assistant up to a sign advertising some street food and it will “read” and translate the text. You can then ask “what does it look like?” and Google will know that the “it” refers to the name of the food written on the sign and it will pull up pictures of the dish.
“It comes so naturally to humans, and now Google is getting really good at conversations too,” said Huffman.
4. Google Home is getting creepier (and more useful)
The voice-activated smart speaker Google Home will offer “proactive assistance” rather than waiting for you to say “OK, Google” to wake it up. For example, it might notify you if you have to leave your house earlier than expected because traffic is particularly heavy. Perhaps the company will start proactively advertising to customers in the future?
Less creepy is the option to make hands-free calls from the Google Home speaker. You simply ask it to dial any landline or mobile number in the US or Canada and it will do so for free. The device can also now recognize up to six different voices in a household and adapt to personal preferences accordingly.
5. Google wants to replace Siri on iPhones
A key theme throughout the keynote was creating a seamless experience across devices, even if that device isn’t in Google’s Android ecosystem. This means that Google Assistant is now available on the iPhone.
Assistant is widely considered much smarter than Siri, thanks to the fact that Google harvests a lot more personal data than privacy-conscious Apple. This means that frustrated Siri users wanting to translate a sentence into another language, play a movie on their Chromecast-enabled TV or order takeout using voice commands will now be able to do so.
6. It’s trying to keep YouTube creators happy
Ever since Google added stricter controls for advertisers on YouTube after it was discovered ads were being placed alongside hate speech or terrorist videos, some vloggers have complained about making less money.
YouTube relies on these internet celebrities to post regular videos and live streams as they attract huge audiences to the platform. That might explain why the company has launched the “super chat”, announced in January. Audience members can pay to have their comment featured prominently during a live stream and in turn donate money to the YouTuber or their chosen cause. The feature was enabled during a popular live stream of a New York-based giraffegiving birth in February, allowing the zoo to make “tens of thousands” of dollars.
7. It wants to take a slice of recruitment advertising
Google for Jobs is a new search function that, by disintermediating the many job listings middlemen, makes it easier for people to find employment (and harder for those listing sites to make money).
“We want to better connect employers and job seekers through Google for Jobs,” said Pichai.
The company has worked with partners including LinkedIn, Monster, and Career Builder to aggregate search in one place – similar to what it’s done with its airline-search tool, Google Flights. The company uses machine learning to understand and group together roles for which employers and employees use different words, for example store clerk and retail manager.
Pichai positioned the launch as an effort to boost American employment, but it’s sure to help get Google – already taking, along with Facebook, the lion’s share of online advertising revenue – a bigger slice of the pie.
8. It needs to attract the ‘next billion’ or two
During the I/O keynote, Pichai stated that seven of Google’s products had more than a billion monthly users: Google search, Android, Chrome, Maps, YouTube, Google Play and Gmail. However, if it’s to continue to grow, it needs to attract the so-called “next billion” users, typically users in lower-income countries just starting to come online through mobile devices. That’s why Google has developed Android Go, a pared-down version of the mobile operating system for entry-level devices that uses less data and loads apps more quickly, even when the signal is poor.
Android Go will be embedded in the latest version of Google’s mobile operating system, Android O, which is more battery efficient and features better protections against viruses and malware in downloaded apps – a notorious problem for Android devices compared with iPhones.
9. It’s realistic about VR and AR
There’s a bucketload of hype around virtual reality and augmented reality, but Google’s approach felt more measured, focusing on the immediate, practical applications (perhaps a symptom of being burned by the now defunct Google Glass prototype, launched with great fanfare and an army of tech evangelists).
The company already has an entry level VR headset that uses a smartphone as the screen, but it teased a couple of more advanced standalone DayDream headsets, made in collaboration with HTC and Lenovo. The details were scarce but Google emphasised that unlike with Oculus or HTC Vive headsets, DayDream headset users wouldn’t need expensive computers to power them or rigs of external cameras to detect the person’s position.
With augmented reality, Google described a “visual positioning system” similar to GPS but with accuracy to the level of centimetres. It works by using the camera to identify objects visually within a space, for example a large store. This means you’d be able to hold up your camera (or wear a pair of smart glasses) and be guided to a specific product on a shelf. This extends Google’s mission to organize the world’s information in the physical domain.
“Imagine what it could mean to people with impaired vision,” said Clay Bavor, vice-president of virtual reality, who suggested that Google-powered camera phones (or other wearable devices) could act as a blind person’s “eyes”.