Over the past few days, I spent some time in the belly of global tech in Silicon Valley. I was there to attend the historical Google event, Google IO 2023.
The tech giant had not hosted the event in three years, ever since we’ve had the pandemic. It comes at a time when many thought Google was under siege as the global tech movement is headed towards artificial intelligence (AI).
Over the past few months, Open AI debuted something that almost shifted mindsets about Microsoft. ChatGPT, a product by OpenAI that has Microsoft’s backing has been seen as something that would change innovation perceptions about Microsoft.
In fact, some who left when Microsoft was losing browser wars with Internet Explorer tried to go back, hoping to experience the ChatGPT power in the Microsoft updated search engine, Bing. After spending some time at Google, I believe there’s limited chance that Microsoft will win the AI race against Google with just the introduction of ChatGPT as a technology.
At Google IO, an event that showcased the latest technologies from Google, it was clear that the company that brought us the most-used search tool in the world still has firepower. Let me explain.
Over the past few days, Google has shown that it’s one thing to launch an AI product to fanfare and it’s something else to launch it in such a way that people use it.
Speaking during his opening address at Google IO, Sundar Pichai said: “Google has been an AI first company for years.”
This is true when one considers the fact we’ve been enjoying the fruits of Google AI when we use autocomplete on our emails and some dictation tools when taking notes via audio.
Most people who care about developments in tech were distracted by the new layout presented by Open AI as well an appearance of a solution to a challenge that never existed. Now that the dust has settled, we have the opportunity to observe and appreciate a more meaningful use of AI. This is the space that Google seeks to close by introducing AI within Google Docs, Sheets, slides and even on email.
There’s something about an AI that enables me to have access to a specific job description text when I need it for a work project. There’s something about an AI tool that develops a basic slide deck to present a new product for work purposes. This is how Google is serving its carefully cooked AI product. You see, Google has not just added an AI plug-in from an outsider, as Bing has been infused with ChatGPT. Google has embedded AI into products that are in the market.
The approach seems to be working as many are using the Google tools and they see them getting better when applied. Here, we are not just referring to corporate use of tools by professionals. The use of Google tools such as maps, docs and sheets is across the board.
This alone creates a difficulty for Microsoft whose products are used primarily by professionals. For Microsoft-led AI to be used across the board within products like Edge, Bing and others it will prove to be like a mountain-climbing exercise.
This is where Microsoft and Google differ. Google has internalised the use of AI whereas the Microsoft implementation has been enabled by an entity that was outside the organisation. OpenAI was not designed to be implemented within the Microsoft environment. The ChatGPT application within Microsoft was an afterthought. This is just one of the reasons why Microsoft cannot easily win the AI race.
Google appears to be slow but not because the company is not innovative. The Mountain View tech company is being careful about its implementation of AI. This is also seen in products that are not yet in the market. The leadership at Google are not in the race to win an AI race. Instead, they are immersed in the process of creating products that are advancing their mission of enabling society to have access to information.
Google has almost everything needed to compete but its products are being refined and deployed carefully.
One of the products which is under development is Project Starline which, when implemented, will take Google Meet to another AI powered level. It is a technology project that combines advances in hardware and software to enable friends, families and co-workers to feel together, even when they’re cities (or countries) apart. While visiting Google HQ, I had an opportunity to see into the future of virtual meetings.
Imagine looking through a window and, through the window, you see another person, life-size and in three dimensions. Even though they are far away, it feels as if they are sitting next to you. This tool allows one to talk naturally, gesture and make eye contact.
To make the project possible, Google applied research in computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio and real-time compression. It has also developed a breakthrough light field display system that creates a sense of volume and depth that can be experienced without the need for additional glasses or headsets.
The effect is the feeling of a person sitting just across from you, like they are right there.
Project Starline is available in just a few Google offices and it relies on custom-built hardware and specialised equipment.
A Google representative I spoke to said the company believed that was where person-to-person communication technology could and should go, and in time, the goal was to make the technology affordable and accessible, including bringing some of the technical advancements into Google’s suite of communication products.
Google has been conducting demos with selected enterprise partners, like WeWork and Salesforce, in areas like health care and the media to get early feedback on the technology and its applications. The tech company is planning trial deployments with more enterprise partners later this year. This is just another example of the approach the company is taking before products are introduced into the market.
One lesson from the Google approach to AI is simply that “User Interface or UI is king”. It’s not enough to have great tech, to succeed and get society to use products there’s a need to present them in such a way that they form part of everyday life and work. No one really cares that they are using an AI tool. It matters that it allows them to achieve super human powers.
Google wants to make you a superhuman with its new AI power technologies without you even realising it. That’s how I think Google will win the AI race. After listening to Sundar Pichai sharing his thoughts about the future, I can safely say AI implementation is in good hands within Google. It will approach it boldly and responsibly. All that’s necessary now is a watchdog to hold it accountable and in check.
Wesley Diphoko is the editor-in-chief of FastCompany (SA) magazine. You can follow him via Twitter: @WesleyDiphoko.