This week, Google placed the phone call that rocked the digital world. At its 2018 I/O event, CEO Sundar Pichai played a recording of Google Assistant making a telephone call to a hair salon to book an appointment for a person. Journalists described the demonstration as jaw dropping. The AI-powered capability, known as Duplex, will make Assistant a more useful tool for doing everything from make reservations to get weather information on the phone – and the demonstration of Duplex on a global stage showed how quickly AI is evolving.
As we have discussed on our blog, Alphabet, Google’s parent, has been amassing a war chest to invest in innovation. The annual Google I/O event is one way that Alphabet showcases (via Google) the fruits of that innovation. And Google made a slew of announcements at this year’s event, many of which positioned the company as a provider of AI-fueled products to make everyday life better – as if to make AI the utility of the future. For example:
With Duplex, Google showed how AI is making Google Assistant more useful and human — by literally sounding more human. The demonstration showed how well AI is getting at recognizing and responding to nuances in human conversation. Google will test Duplex inside Google Assistant this summer. According to Pichai, Google Assistant is getting so smart that it can react when a conversation departs from the planned conversation. He said, “We really want it to work in cases, say, if you’re a busy parent in the morning and your kid is sick and you want to call for a doctor’s appointment.” Google posted more about Duplex here.
More Personal Wayfinding
Google made many other announcements within 48 hours including one that was not as sexy as Duplex but still impactful. For example, Google made some significant improvements to Google Maps. First off, Google said it will make Google Maps more helpful by using AI to provide personalized recommendations beyond the fastest route to your nearest Starbucks. Google also announced that Maps and Street view will employ augmented reality to overlay walking directions on top your physical environment – which will remove the clumsiness of needing to use an abstract map on your phone to navigate a real-world environment. As the Verge noted, the experience is “a lot like the promises Google had made with the original version of Google Glass, except without the need for wearing an additional AR headset.”
As Google VP for engineering and product management Jen Fitzpatrick said, “Today, our users aren’t just asking for the fastest route to a place but also what’s happening around them, what the new places are and what the locals are doing in their neighborhood.” For example, Google Maps will learn your personal preferences and give you customized recommendations of things to do in an area you’re viewing via Maps. Depending on contextual information such as time of day, Google Maps may serve up idea for places to eat breakfast, lunch, or dinner. The more you use Google Maps and participate with activities such as rating establishments, the smarter Google Maps will become as a personal navigator.
AI for Content Creation and Curation
Other AI-related announcements included Gmail helping people complete emails with a function called Smart Compose and a better curated Google News based on AI akin to Spotify serving up smarter songs based on your interests. If these announcements sound like a baseball team winning with small ball, that’s exactly the idea – Google isn’t making grand proclamations to change the world with AI. Rather, Google, wants to make AI an everyday tool embedded in our lives, just as Google has been trying to do with virtual reality.
But can Google keep up the momentum?
A Distraction and Attraction Problem
Google has the R&D chops and deep pockets to deliver on its aim to make AI a utility instead of a threat. But Google faces threats. Amazon, for one, continues to deepen its development of AI to make smarter recommendations, and since Amazon is increasingly a self-contained search platform, anything Amazon develops means strong competition.
But an even bigger threat may be Google itself. At I/O, Google has been known to announce splashy product research in areas such as VR and voice only to lose momentum and focus. In a sense, Google suffers from a distraction and attraction problem the follows a pattern: first, Google announce the forthcoming launch cool new products. But then the company gets distracted by its many priorities, and its newer innovations run the risk of losing the attention of upper management, which is focused on the present-day need to deliver revenue via online advertising.
For example, Google has rolled out products such as Daydream that are designed to make virtual reality more accessible only to lose momentum with their rollout. Meanwhile, Oculus, with its focus on VR, announces its own lightweight VR headset, Oculus GO, in October 2017 — and then launches and aggressively promotes the product by April 2018.
Google appears to have taken a step to solve its distraction and attraction problem by renaming its research division Google AI just hours before I/O 2018 opened its doors on May 8. Rebranding Google Research as Google AI is more than a news announcement. The change represents an intent to focus Google’s resources on one crucial area that is already changing how people work and live. With the rebrand, Google is challenging itself to execute on its ideas.
The Google Advantage
That said, I think Google enjoys a big advantage with the existence of already popular tools such as Google Maps. Google Maps gives Google a loyal user base and platform for integrating AI into a product rather than have to launch a product from scratch. A platform such as Google Maps also gives Google a stockpile of consumer behavior data that Google can learn from and improve its products that much faster.
The real proof of Google’s aspirations will come in coming months. You can count on Amazon to try and upstage Google with an even smarter integration of AI into Alexa. Let’s see how quickly Google acts now that Sundar Pichai put a public stake in the ground with an AI-powered conversation.