Google's Giant Brain & Our Device-Free Future

Google has stated it is moving from a mobile world to an "AI first world." So what does this mean for us and should we prepare to throw away our iPhones and Android devices?

In last week's newsletter I discussed Facebook's goal to create "intelligent machines." Unsurprisingly, that goal is shared by Google (and its holding company, Alphabet). The mission of the Google Brain division, for example, is to "make intelligent machines, and to use them to improve people’s lives." But whereas Facebook has just two artificial intelligence units, one for research and the other product-focused, Google has many different AI projects. Perhaps even one for each letter in the alphabet. Why is this? Because Google's ambition for AI is much larger than Facebook's.

As far back as 2002, Google co-founder and Alphabet CEO Larry Page is reported to have said "we’re really making an AI." With the benefit of hindsight, the rest of us can finally see what Page was on about. Google search, still the company's core product, has evolved into an Artificial Intelligence machine. It's certainly the smartest thing I have daily contact with. A few nights ago, for example, someone on Twitter remarked that HAL (the supercomputer from 2001: A Space Odyssey) is one letter away in the alphabet from IBM. Or put another way: IBM minus one. That had never occurred to me before, so I looked it up on Google search. Immediately I saw that this mini-conspiracy had been discussed many times in the past on the Internet. Ok that's a relatively insignificant factoid, but it would've been almost impossible to research pre-Google.

The Big Brain Theory

Google search may be the cornerstone of Google's AI prowess, but over the past few years it has doubled down on AI technology. For a start, Google has acquired more AI companies than any other bigco - nine of them, according to CB Insights. The most significant was DeepMind, a British company that develops self-learning algorithms. You may not have heard of the company before, but you've probably heard that its technology defeated a champion Go player. Go is a board game considered much tougher for computers to master than chess, so this was a big step forward for AI.

DeepMind has larger ambitions than just playing board games. Its co-founder and CEO, Demis Hassabis, wants to build the first "general-purpose learning machine." In other words, the goal is to build a computer that thinks like a human brain. There's a computing term for this: artificial general intelligence (AGI). It's also known as "strong AI" and has been the holy grail for AI researchers for many decades.

This strikes me as the biggest difference between Google's goal for AI and Facebook's. In both its research division and its product team, Facebook's AI efforts are focused on automating tasks (for example, sorting photos) and augmenting Facebook users (via its prototype Messenger assistant, M). In other words, Facebook has specific user-centric goals for AI. Google, on the other hand, appears to be trying to replicate the human brain. Certainly that will improve Google search. But there's more to Google's AI ambitions than that. I think Google is trying to make AI into a utility, much like electricity or water.

Google Assistant

Regardless of its long-term goal to make a giant AI brain, Google's short-term goal is the same as every every other Internet bigco: build a voice-controlled assistant. Over the past couple of weeks, I've covered the leading contenders in this product category: Apple's Siri, Microsoft's Cortana, Amazon's Alexa, and the indie company Viv (created by Siri's founders after they left Apple). Google's initial effort was an Android assistant called Google Now. However, at its annual developer conference in May, Google announced a new product called Google Assistant.

Google's announcement blog post described Google Assistant as "an ambient experience that will work seamlessly across devices and contexts." Of course it will be "conversational," the trend de jour of 2016. But Assistant will be more conversational than Now; Google says it will engage in two-way dialogue with the user. Or as Google CEO Sundar Pichai put it, "we think of this as building each user their own, individual Google."

Assistant will soon be deployed in three new, upcoming products: Google Home (a device that looks and functions like the Amazon Echo), Allo (a new messaging app which sounds very similar to Facebook's M), and Duo ("a companion app for one-to-one video calling," similar perhaps to Apple's FaceTime). As usual, Google's product naming is terrible. But you can see where it's going with Assistant - this will be like a Google search box you can converse with anywhere and anytime.

Moving From Mobile First to AI First

Google signaled the importance of AI to its vision in this year's Founders' Letter, an annual letter to its stockholders. Normally the Founders' Letter is written by Larry and Sergey, but this year it was penned by new Google CEO Sundar Pichai. He wrote:

Looking to the future, the next big step will be for the very concept of the “device” to fade away. Over time, the computer itself—whatever its form factor—will be an intelligent assistant helping you through your day. We will move from mobile first to an AI first world.

Google Assistant is clearly a pointer to this device-free future. But Google is a highly experimental company and so it has many other AI products on the go. A number of them are collected under the trendy term "machine learning." The next big breakthrough in building the Giant Brain is just as likely to come from a small internal Google project, as it is from the teams behind Assistant or DeepMind.

The heart of Google has always been its search engine, arguably the world's most sophisticated cloud-based software ever since its debut in 1997. Of course back in the late nineties, we only had PCs and web browsers to access Google with. Now we have mobile phones too. Soon, we'll access Google's Giant Brain anywhere and anytime, simply by talking out loud. That's the "AI first world" Google is working towards.

2 thoughts on “Google's Giant Brain & Our Device-Free Future”

  1. Each December going back to 2004, I’ve done a year in review blog post about technology. This year I’m focusing on technology trends rather than specific products. But I’ll mention many of my favorite tech products as part of the review.
    In time, we may look back on 2016 as the beginning of the big shift away from mobile phones. Why? Because much of the innovation in 2016 happened in product categories like Virtual Reality, Artificial Intelligence, Automation, Wearables, and Internet of Things (IoT). In those categories, the mobile phone typically isn’t the primary device (although it’s often a supporting or connecting device – at least for now). In VR, headsets such as Oculus Rift or HTC Vive are the primary devices. With wearables and IoT, the primary device is either attached to our body or integrated into our environment. And while consumer AI is sometimes phone-based (for example, Siri), usually it’s either device-less (like IBM Watson) or a bold new type of device (like the Amazon Echo). As these trends continue to evolve, eventually we won’t need smartphones at all. But I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s look at the trends of 2016 that started this gradual shift…
    1. Virtual Reality Becomes Reality

    After decades of hype, 2016 was the year that VR arrived as a consumer product. Three major VR headsets were released this year: Facebook’s Oculus Rift in March, the HTC Vive in April, and Sony’s Playstation VR in October. All helped make VR a reality this year. On the down side, we learned over 2016 that compelling VR content hasn’t arrived yet. Especially if you weren’t already an avid gamer. Also the level of presence – that feeling of truly believing you’re in an alternate reality – has a long way to go for the current crop of devices.
    But at least VR is a real, commercially viable technology now. Not to mention it has inspired certain science fiction authors to speculate about where it might take us in the future.
    2. Conversing With Artificial Intelligence

    AI has been evolving at a steady clip for many years now, but until now there hasn’t been a breakthrough consumer AI product. In 2016 it became clear that Amazon Echo was that product; it was released outside of the US for the first time this year. The idea is that you talk to the Echo device via a voice service called Alexa (Amazon calls Alexa “the brain behind Echo”). This may prompt comparisons to the infamous movie AI, HAL 9000, in Stanley Kubrick’s movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Luckily, so far there haven’t been any reports of a rebellious Alexa, although it did make a couple of guest appearances this year in the dark (and brilliant) tv show Mr Robot.
    Alexa is a form of intelligent assistant, a product type that Google, Facebook, Microsoft and others are all exploring. A related trend over 2016 was the rise of ‘chatbots,’ which are integrated into Instant Messaging apps. What they have in common with Alexa is their conversational interface. Facebook began experimenting with chatbots this year in the Messenger app, in an attempt to catch up to its more sophisticated Asian competitors.
    3. Social Media Jumps The Shark

    2016 was the year “selfish media” finally went too far. Whether it was fake news, filter bubbles that prevent people from seeing (let alone understanding) other viewpoints, over-sharing people dominating our feeds, the outrage culture that permeates the media, or simply the overwhelming flow of blinkered opinions we get every day on social media… I’ve had enough. I’ve already begun to dial down my social media consumption.
    It’s not all bad, of course. I still enjoy keeping in touch with family and friends on Facebook, and Twitter is useful for tracking narrowly defined interests. But social media proved in 2016 that it is not a viable news platform – at least if we want truthful and open-minded discussions. Bring back blogs in 2017?
    4. Society Begins To Tackle Automation

    We’ve only just started the conversation about how to transition to an economy which is heavily automated. In 2016, there were multiple warning signs of the potential impact. Take Uber, for example. The popular ride-sharing app began actively trialling driverless Uber cars in 2016. It’s likely that Uber’s driverless car fleet will eventually take the jobs of tens of thousands of human drivers – and that could easily happen within a decade. What will all those drivers do next?
    This conversation is less about the technology itself, than it is about finding solutions to what automation will do to our working culture. That could mean implementing a Universal Basic Income, or people becoming more creative in how they earn an income. We don’t yet know how to deal with increasing automation. But it’s an important topic and in 2016 we, as a global society, at least started talking about it.
    5. Pokémon GO & The Dawn of Augmented Reality

    I couldn’t do a review of 2016 without mentioning Pokémon GO, which had an extraordinary burst of popularity over July and August. Without a doubt the killer app of this year, Pokémon GO brought Augmented Reality (AR) into the mainstream. At one point it seemed like every kid in my city was chasing cartoon characters down the street. And the irony, at least for me? Pokémon GO was a smartphone app. So mobile phones are not dead yet!
    Conclusion
    Ultimately, I think Pokémon GO was an outlier this year. I look back on 2016 as the year in which Internet technology went well beyond our mobile phones. Whether it was VR headsets in our lounges, Alexa in our living rooms, or driverless cars being tested on our roads, 2016 expanded the scope of what it means to be ‘online’ (or ‘invirt’ as I put it in my VR novel). I expect to see more of this expansion in coming years.
    So when will the smartphone lose its status as our primary Internet device? Probably not for many years. However, perhaps this generation of teenagers will be the last to walk around with their necks craned downwards, staring at a small rectangular screen.
    Lead image: Wired

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