Google Strikes Humble Tone While Touting AI Technology

Posted May 8, 2018 6:32 p.m. EDT

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. — Google’s annual conference for software developers is usually a celebration of technology, an event that highlights how tech advancements — no matter how mundane — are good for the world.

But in a year when some of its most popular products have been used to propagate misinformation, spread conspiracy theories and meddle with elections, Google struck a more measured tone Tuesday. Speaking at this year’s Google I/O conference, Sundar Pichai, the company’s chief executive, said advancements in artificial intelligence had pushed Google to be more reflective about its responsibilities.

“There are very real and important questions being raised about the impact of these advances and the role they will play in our lives,” Pichai said during his keynote speech. “We know the path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately. We feel a deep sense of responsibility to get this right.”

Pichai was acknowledging the backlash facing Silicon Valley. Google has come under fire for its far-reaching data collection practices, its inability to tackle the deluge of problematic videos on YouTube and its occasional failures in keeping misinformation away from search results in the minutes after tragic events.

Google did not dwell on those headaches, however. In front of an enthusiastic crowd at an outdoor amphitheater near its Mountain View headquarters, the internet giant fell back on a familiar message: Artificial intelligence will change the world.

Pichai said artificial intelligence had uncovered breakthroughs in health care that humans wouldn’t have spotted. An artificial intelligence program running on Google’s so-called machine-learning software that helps diagnose eye disease from a retina image found that the same photo could be used to identify cardiovascular risk.

It’s the type of meaningful breakthrough that Google executives love to tout, but it has little to do with Google’s core web products or the way it makes money. But even those services are getting an artificially intelligent makeover.

The company demonstrated how its Google Assistant computer software is now capable of calling a person at a hair salon or a restaurant to make a reservation. Google said artificial intelligence had allowed the computer’s voice to sound more human — complete with “uhs” and natural pauses, as well as logical follow-up questions — so the person at the other end doesn’t know that he or she is speaking to a computer.

Improvements in AI have allowed Google’s computer assistant to have different voices and accents, including the ability later this year to have the singer John Legend tell you the day’s weather.

The company also demonstrated a new artificially intelligent feature in Gmail, called Smart Compose, that starts to suggest complete sentences in email as you type. Google said this would help users complete emails more quickly with fewer spelling and grammar mistakes. It plans to add this feature over the next few weeks.

But one of its most significant AI breakthroughs will never be seen by consumers.

Google said it would roll out a new processing chip to power many of its machine-learning programs. AI programs require a great deal of computing power, and custom-made chips housed inside data centers to handle this data crunch have fueled an arms race among the tech industry’s biggest companies. Google said its new chip would be eight times more powerful than the chip it introduced last year.

Mark Hung, a research vice president at the research firm Gartner, said the conference demonstrated how much Google relied on AI to make its products stand out.

“Almost everything Google is announcing now is AI related,” he said. “Google has a lead on artificial intelligence over many of its competitors, and it’s going to use that as a weapon to advance their products forward.”

In keeping with a theme of a more responsible Google, the company also introduced features aimed at addressing how technology is burrowing deeper into our lives — sometimes in negative ways.

Google unveiled a series of “digital well-being” updates in the next version of its Android smartphone software. They include a timer that allows a person to limit time spent on certain apps each day and a Do Not Disturb feature that silences phone calls and notifications and can be turned on by placing the smartphone screen face down on a table.

The company is also trying to encourage good manners with its Google Assistant. The new “pretty please” feature, which encourages children to use “please” when asking for assistance, aims to address the concern that children are learning to speak impolitely because they are talking to more digital assistants.