That Google I/O show is definitely something, isn’t it? It was a rip-roaring two hours of non-stop AI talk without a break. Bard, Palm, Duet, Unicorn, Gecko, Gemini, Tailwind, Otter—there are so many cryptic AI code names being thrown around that it’s hard to keep track of what Google is saying. A glossary would have been really helpful. The highlight is, of course, the hardware, but even mentioned as an AI delivery system.
Google is in the midst of a general panic over the rise of OpenAI and its flagship product, ChatGPT, which has excited Wall Street and has the potential to steal some of the questions people typically type in Google.com. It’s an embarrassing situation for Google, especially for its CEO Sundar Pichai, who has been putting up an “AI first” mantra for about seven years now and doesn’t have much to show for it. Google has been trying to convince consumers about AI for years, but people seem to start caring once someone outside of Google gets involved.
Even more embarrassing is that the rise of ChatGPT is built on Google technology. The “T” in “ChatGPT” stands for “transformer,” a neural network technique invented by Google in 2017 and never commercialized. OpenAI took Google’s public research, built a product around it, and is now using that product to threaten Google.
In the months before I/O, Pichai issued a “Code Red” warning to the entire company, saying that ChatGPT was something Google needed to fight, and even it dragged its co-founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, out of retirement to help. . Years ago, Google panicked at Facebook and ordered that all employees build social features into existing Google applications. And while that was a widely hated initiative that ultimately failed, Google dusted off the Google+ playbook to fight OpenAI. It is now being reported that all employees will be required to build some sort of AI component into every Google product.
“Mandatory AI” is exactly what Google I/O felt like. Each section of the presentation has some Google division giving a book report about the New AI Thing they’ve been working on for the past six months. Google I/O felt more like a presentation for Google managers than a show meant to excite developers and consumers. The AI directive led to funny situations like Android’s head of engineering going on stage to talk only more about an AI-powered poop emoji wallpaper generator than any meaningful OS improvements.
Wall Street investors are apparently an excited bunch for Google I/O —the company’s stock jumped 4 percent after the show. Maybe that’s the point of it all.
An AI show without a mention of Google Assistant?
Would you believe Google Assistant got it zero speaking at Google I/O? This show is exclusively about AI, and Google is not talking about its biggest AI product. Pichai’s seminal “AI First” blog post from 2016 was about Google Assistant and shows a picture of Pichai in front of the Google Assistant logo. Google has highlighted past AI projects like Gmail’s Smart Reply and Smart Compose, Google Photos’ magic eraser and AI-powered search, Deepmind’s AlphaGo, and Google Lens, but Google Assistant can’t handle a mention. That seems to be on purpose.
Heck, Google has introduced a product that is a follow-up to the Nest Hub Google Assistant smart display—the Pixel Tablet—and Google Assistant still can’t get a mention. At one point, the presenter even said that the Pixel Tablet will have a “voice-activated helper.”
Google’s avoidance of Google Assistant at I/O seems like a further deprioritization of its once flagship AI product. The last major speaker/display product launch with Assistant was two years ago in March 2021. Since then, Google has shipped hardware that removed Assistant support from Nest Wi-Fi and Fitbit, and disabled these are the commands of Assistant in Waze. A Sonos patent case was lost and key speaker functionality, such as volume control, was removed from the cast portion. Assistant Driving Mode is being shut down in 2022, and one of Assistant’s biggest features, reminders, is being shut down in favor of Google Tasks Reminders.
The Pixel Tablet certainly looks like it’s a new Google Assistant device because it’s the same as all other Google Assistant devices, but Google ships it without a dedicated smart display interface. It’s as if it was conceived when Assistant was a viable Google product and then shipped as leftover hardware when Assistant fell out of favor.
The Google Assistant team has reportedly been asked to stop working on its own product and focus on improving Bard. The Helper has never made any money in its seven years; hardware is all sold at cost, voice recognition servers are expensive to run, and Assistant doesn’t have any viable post-sale revenue streams like ads. Anecdotally, it seems that the power for voice recognition servers has been reduced, because Assistant commands seem to take a few seconds to process recently.