Google Doubles Down on AI

Alphabet's Google kicked off its annual I/O conference in Mountain View, Calif., this week by unveiling new artificial intelligence (AI) technology that allows its virtual assistant to speak with a human-like cadence, including "ums" and "uhs." CEO Sundar Pichai showed off the capabilities of Google Duplex with recordings of phone calls to book a haircut and a restaurant reservation. The people on the receiving ends of those calls seemed to have no idea they were coming from an AI-enabled system. Neither did the audience.

"We've been working on this technology for many years," Pichai told a stunned crowd packed into the Shoreline Amphitheater, around the corner from the Googleplex. "We're still developing this technology, and we want to work hard to get this technology and the expectations right."

Pichai said his company will be rolling out Duplex as an experimental feature in the coming weeks. He said it will be available in 30 languages by the end of the year. He also announced that R&B start John Legend would voice the Google Assistant.

A day before the start of the conference, Google announced that it had rebranded its Google Research group to Google AI. Much of the work of that group was already AI-focused, but the new name "better reflects" a commitment to AI, machine learning, and deep learning technologies, the company said.

"For the past several years, we've pursued research that reflects our commitment to make AI available for everyone," the company said in a blog post. "From computer vision to healthcare research to AutoML, we have increasingly put emphasis on implementing machine learning techniques in nearly everything we do at Google. Our research has been core to the development and integration of these systems into Google products and platforms."

Google AI now "encompasses all the state-of-the-art research happening across Google," the blog post stated.

Pichai introduced a slew of new AI-powered capabilities for its products during his keynote, including: Gmail's upcoming ability to help compose e-mails, a new Google Photos feature called Suggested Actions that can spot friends in photos and offer to share them, and a "politeness feature" aimed at children that responds in kind when they say "please."

This year's I/O conference drew an estimated 7,000 attendees.

About the Author

John K. Waters is the editor in chief of a number of sites, with a focus on high-end development, AI and future tech. He's been writing about cutting-edge technologies and culture of Silicon Valley for more than two decades, and he's written more than a dozen books. He also co-scripted the documentary film Silicon Valley: A 100 Year Renaissance, which aired on PBS.  He can be reached at [email protected].