Get­ting smarter

Google starts shap­ing the suc­ces­sor to the smartphone

Financial Times USA - - FRONT PAGE - RICHARD WA­TERS — MOUN­TAIN VIEW

Sun­dar Pichai, chief ex­ec­u­tive of Google, has said for more than a year that ar­ti­fi­cial in­tel­li­gence will re­make ev­ery­thing the in­ter­net com­pany does. Fi­nally, for peo­ple gath­er­ing at the com­pany’s an­nual de­vel­oper con­fer­ence in Silicon Valley this week, there was a sense of how big that change might be.

In the most vis­i­ble demon­stra­tion of its am­bi­tions to ex­tend the reach of its AI-pow­ered ser­vices, Google launched its in­tel­li­gent as­sis­tant — known, sim­ply, as As­sis­tant — as an app on Ap­ple’s iPhone, pit­ting it di­rectly against Ap­ple’s Siri in a show­down of the in­tel­li­gent agents.

Less no­ticed but per­haps more im­por­tant was Google’s an­nounce­ment of a new com­put­ing ser­vice for busi­nesses and gov­ern­ments hop­ing to draw on the same AI that pow­ers the com-

‘They’ve made a huge amount of progress in a short amount of time’ Ge­off Blaber, CCS In­sight

pany’s own ser­vices. “We re­alise we’re not go­ing to solve all the world’s ma­chine-learning prob­lems our­selves,” said Jeff Dean, one of the com­pany’s top AI re­searchers.

In­stead, the tech­niques Google has de­vel­oped for speech and vi­sion recog­ni­tion are be­ing made avail­able for com­pa­nies to ap­ply them­selves. They will be able to use the tech­nolo­gies for some of their hard­est com­put­ing prob­lems, such as de­tect­ing fraud and analysing large vol­umes of pa­tient health data, he said.

The new com­put­ing ser­vice will also pro­pel Google deeper into the chip busi­ness, mak­ing it an un­likely com­peti­tor for the com­pa­nies build­ing the com­put­ing foun­da­tions of the AI era, such as

Nvidia and In­tel. The in­ter­net com­pany said ranks of servers based on chips of its own de­sign, known as Ten­sor Pro­cess­ing Units, or TPUs, would be opened to cus­tomers as a cloud ser­vice.

“This could have far-reach­ing con­se­quences,” said Chi­rag Dekate, an an­a­lyst at Gart­ner, adding that it would bring a step-change to the kind of power that com­pa­nies have for analysing their own data. “It will be hard for oth­ers to com­pete with Google’s per­for­mance.”

In one demon­stra­tion of the po­ten­tial of its in­creas­ingly pow­er­ful AI plat­form, Google dis­closed it was work­ing with three US med­i­cal in­sti­tu­tions to an­a­lyse masses of health data in pur­suit of new ways to im­prove pa­tient care.

This was only one as­pect of a broad­rang­ing push into ma­chine learning — the com­pany’s main AI tech­nique — that was shown off this week at its big an­nual tech show­case event.

“They’ve made a huge amount of progress in a short amount of time,” said Ge­off Blaber, an an­a­lyst at CCS In­sight.

Un­der­pin­ning this has been the head­way the com­pany re­ported in core tech­nolo­gies such as lan­guage un­der­standi ng and i mage recog­ni­tion. The ad­vances have in­cluded re­duc­ing the er­ror rate of its voice recog­ni­tion tech­nol­ogy from 8.5 per cent to 4.9 per cent since last July, said Mr Pichai.

AI has also helped with the de­sign of some of its prod­ucts, for ex­am­ple en­abling it to re­fine the soft­ware in Home, its “smart” speaker.

Google has also been work­ing on more ways to em­bed AI into all of its ser­vices.

“It’s more in­te­grated into the user ex­pe­ri­ence,” said Carolina Mi­lanesi, an an­a­lyst at Cre­ative Strate­gies. Ex­am­ples on dis­play this week in­clude ap­ply­ing fa­cial recog­ni­tion to a user’s pho­tos to rec­om­mend other peo­ple with whom the pic­tures should be shared.

At the cen­tre of this push is As­sis­tant. Google demon­strated this week how the tech­nol­ogy could be used as an in­tel­li­gent layer for other ser­vices, for in­stance help­ing users find out more about real-world ob­jects cap­tured by their smartphone cam­eras.

As­sis­tant is set to be­come more knowl­edge­able — and use­ful — as it starts to ap­pear on more de­vices and acts as the foun­da­tion for more ser­vices, said Mr Dean. “We’re start­ing to get third-party in­te­gra­tion points,” he said.

Launched late last year on Google’s Pixel smartphone and Home, As­sis­tant is still in its early stages. Google this week claimed it was on 100m de­vices — though that in­cludes all smart­phones run­ning the lat­est ver­sion of the An­droid oper­at­ing sys­tem, even if their users have not tried out As­sis­tant.

And even Google ex­ec­u­tives say they are try­ing to de­sign the most ef­fec­tive ways of in­ter­act­ing with the ser­vice to help users make the most of it.

“It doesn’t seem yet that as­sis­tants are chang­ing our lives,” Ms Mi­lanesi said.

Google also faces stiff com­pe­ti­tion from Ama­zon, which has moved quickly to con­sol­i­date the early lead of its own Alexa voice-op­er­ated ser­vice.

But Google has been putting the pieces in place for a bat­tle likely to take years to un­fold. Part of that has in­volved re­leas­ing an As­sis­tant app to run on iPhone. Since it is not “na­tive” to the Ap­ple plat­form, it will not be able to do some things that Siri can, such as set the phone’s alarm. Google hopes it will more than make up for this by be­ing able to op­er­ate Google’s own ser­vices, such as Maps, and bring­ing a deeper un­der­stand­ing of the user gleaned from in­ter­ac­tions on other de­vices.

If peo­ple come to rely on such ser­vices to bring a common ex­pe­ri­ence to all their de­vices, it could turn soft­ware like As­sis­tant into a new com­put­ing plat­form, and, says Ms Mi­lanesi, pose a big chal­lenge to Ap­ple, which tends to re­strict ser­vices like Siri to its own de­vices to sup­port hard­ware sales. “There’s a whole bunch of stuff As­sis­tant will know that Siri doesn’t,” she said.

The smartphone still dom­i­nates com­put­ing. But as the new AI-pow­ered plat­forms take shape, a pos­si­ble suc­ces­sor to to­day’s touch­screens and app stores may be start­ing to come into fo­cus.

Michael Short/Bloomberg

Del­e­gates at the Google de­vel­oper con­fer­ence in Cal­i­for­nia heard the com­pany out­line plans to ex­tend the reach of its ma­chine learning tech­nol­ogy

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