Yesterday, Google held a conference in San Francisco where they unveiled several new devices: a new phone called Pixel, a new version of Chromecast, a WiFi router, a home integration hub called Google Home, and a virtual reality headset called Daydream. They started their talk with an update on how they are making things like search and language translation better. These are services many of us use today. So, who wouldn’t like “better?”
They discussed, but did not dwell on how they are using Artificial Intelligence, or AI to make their solutions better. Many AI talks are mired in a sea of algorithms, equations, and jargon – words that if they don’t put us to sleep, would incite us to move on to the next activity in our busy lives. We would click the next link, check out a different website, listen to Pandora, watch something on Netflix, or start playing our favorite game. But Google was wise. They did not bore us. (OK I have to admit, I would have been excited by the jargon, algorithms, and equations. After all, I studied AI as part of my computer science degree and obtained a minor in psychology because of my interest in AI.)
Google used a play from Apple’s game book. They focused on what you could do with their technology; not on how their technology works. The “what” talks to your heart and the “how” talks to your brain. They offered something that people could get exciting about and provided just enough information to keep us feeling good about being excited. It reminded me of some of the keynotes from the iconic Steve Jobs where he focused on how cool and useful Apple’s products were; he did not focus on their specifications. In many ways, those specs felt like an afterthought.
Changing The Game
Perhaps it wasn’t obvious, but Google changed the game yesterday. They turned hardware – not just their hardware, but any hardware – into a delivery channel for their AI platform. Wherever you go, you are always connected to Google AI Assistant. It will help you, advise, you, learn from you, teach you, and even do things for you.
Imagine you are in the middle of setting up a reservation and buying movie tickets for Friday night when you are suddenly interrupted. One day you’ll be able to just ask your assistant to complete what you were doing. The AI assistant will infer all that it needs from what it knows about you and what you were doing. The power of an good AI assistant goes far beyond asking what today’s weather is going to be like, or what’s the population of the Washington, D.C. You’ll no longer need to go into your email app. You’ll tell your assistant what you want to say and who you want to say it to. The AI assistant will write and send the message for you.
But the promise of a true assistant goes beyond simply tasks. It moves into intent. You might be able to say, “If I get an email from Elaine about dinner, try to set up something for next week” and trust that your assistant will make it happen; that is assuming that Elaine sends you that initial email.
Some might argue that Google is playing a game of catchup. That’s hard to say, because vendors are always trying to one–up one another. Microsoft, Apple, Amazon, Facebook, and others are all exploring ways to exploit AI, making it more useful and valuable. In fact, today a SF Bay Area–based AI company called VIV was just acquired by Samsung. Like Google’s Assistant, VIV remembers context and can do things on your behalf; like ordering a pizza or calling up an Uber ride.
It is not a complete surprise that Samsung has ventured into the software space when one of their leading partners has ventured head–first into the deep end of the hardware pool. And like Google, Samsung can offer their AI platform on their wide range of consumer products. And as a top seller of cell phones, it will be interesting to see how they decide to integrate VIV into their products. So, does this mean that we on the verge of an Internet of Things (IoT) and AI marriage? Well, perhaps they aren’t getting married yet, but they are certainly dating.
Availability across a wide range of hardware is where Apple is at a slight disadvantage. By its very nature, iOS is Apple and Apple is iOS. Apple’s success was predicated on the marriage of hardware and software; both of which they controlled. But unless they open up their operating system to run on more platforms, it could limit how broadly they can offer their AI solution – Siri. If Siri is only available on Apple products, the adoption rate might not be as fast or as broad as it will be for vendors with solutions that run on many different devices. Of course, the race is just getting started and the road is long. A lot can and will happen in the next few years as AI becomes more ubiquitous and vendor offerings mature.
Impact On Businesses
For decades, AI lived in the pages of science fiction books and the images of science fiction movies. Over time, science fiction gave way to practical solutions. AI has spawned valuable tools and techniques that are broadly used by business today. In the 80s and 90s, rule-based systems (a product of AI) made its way into business computing. Today, the AI door continues to widen with other AI products. From chatbots that interact with customers on line, voice systems that interact with customers on the phone, or AI response-bots that automatically answer emails, AI is making significant contributions in business.
While not unique, Google’s offering means that more business will be able to explore AI; not as a technology, but as a solution. Some companies will look at customized solutions to help with specific problems. Other companies will turn to vendors who will start to provide off–the–shelf solutions that businesses can leverage. And with an AI technique called machine learning, these solutions can be customized to each business’s unique situation. In many ways, we are at the threshold of a new business software revolution that is grounded in AI.
As with any technology, we have to ask ourselves some very important questions about AI: Are we comfortable having a computer listening to us all the time, with access to all of our messages, emails, and voice mails. If all of our information is now being sent to the AI–cloud all the time, can it ever completely be forgotten or erased? Imagine if your customer data is in an AI–cloud and the vendor decides to somehow monetize that cloud. While you battle the legal issue, your data is potentially being used in ways you might not desire. Without safeguards, problems like this could create vulnerabilities to individuals, to companies, and to societies. Addressing questions like this is not unique to Google’s AI solution, but all AI solutions. While businesses may get around this by using private AI–clouds, the technology will introduce new security and confidentiality concerns that business leaders will need to address.
Google isn’t first at the party nor were they last. But they have changed the game and that’s exciting. Their hardware doesn’t seem leaps and bounds beyond their competitors. But the idea of making AI easy and widely accessible is no less revolutionary than the introduction of Apple’s first iPod or iPhone. If I buy a Pixel phone, it won’t be because it has better specs than anything else on the market; it will be because Google may have just taken the “phone” out of equation by turning it into a channel for connecting to your AI Assistant.
Steven B. Bryant is a futurist, researcher, and author who investigates the innovative application and strategic implications of science and technology on society and business. He is the author of DISRUPTIVE: Rewriting the rules of physics, which is a thought–provoking book that shows where relativity fails and introduces Modern Mechanics, a unified model of motion that fundamentally changes how we view modern physics. DISRUPTIVE is available at Amazon.com, BarnesAndNoble.com, and other booksellers!
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Photo of Steven B. Bryant ©2015 Steven B. Bryant, Photo by Amy Slutak