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Google I/O 2018: Get ready for AI-powered lifehacks

Google’s Sundar Pichai says we are at an “important inflection point in computing”, with AI front and centre. Photo / Peter Griffin

Google has unveiled what amounts to a series of artificial intelligence-powered lifehacks for users of its popular apps and Android-powered smartphones as it positions AI as central to its future.

Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off Google’s I/O developers conference this morning with a clear nod to the Facebook-Cambridge Analytica scandal’s impact on Silicon Valley in general.

“We are at an important inflection point in computing. It has made us even more reflective about our responsibilities,” he said.

“We just can’t be wide-eyed about the innovations technology creates.”

But it was wide-eyed awe he was seeking and at times received as he and his colleagues unveiled updates to well-established products such as Gmail, Google Assistant, Maps, News and Android P, the new version of its smartphone operating system.

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Smarter email and photos Google’s popular free webmail service Gmail will now be able to predict what you want to write, using AI to read the contents of previous emails and understand the context of the email you are about to send in a supercharged version of predictive text.

Smart Compose will similarly suggest phrases for you as you type and will be rolled out in Gmail later this month. It builds on Smart Replies in Gmail, which gives short phrases as quick responses to emails such as “Got that, thanks!” Google says Smart Replies are now responsible for 12 per cent of responses to emails from Gmail on the mobile.

AI-powered suggestions are also coming to Google Photos, where five billion photos are viewed every day. Google Photos already has simple photo editing tools built into, but now edits will be suggested as you browse your collection. It could be simply making a dimly-lit photo brighter or adding pops of colour to a black and white photo.

AI will suggest tweaks to your photos.

Name tagging in photos will also improve. Using facial recognition, Google Photos will be able to automatically detect your friends and contacts within photos and give you the option of sending them photos they are tagged in with the click of a button.

Smarter assistant

Google’s Home and Mini smart speakers, powered by Google Assistant, are still not officially on sale in New Zealand, but it hasn’t stopped us buying them online and 5,000 smart devices now support the software, as well as 500 million smartphones.

New updates remove some of the frustrating aspects of Google Assistant, such as having to say “Hey Google” to activate every voice command you give it. Instead with Continued Conversation, you can have a more natural conversation with your digital assistant, which in the next few months will come with an additional six voices.

Assistant will also power a new range of smart displays - basically smart speakers with full-colour displays built into them. Amazon’s Echo Spot device already boasts a screen that will display such information as weather forecasts and the music track you are playing. Google will take that a step further, partnering with consumer electronics makers to develop devices with larger screens.

Services like Youtube TV, Google Maps and Google’s video calling app Duo will be integrated into the smart devices, which will be voice-controlled. No date has been given for a New Zealand debut for the smart devices, though given the delay in Google Home’s arrival, they could be further off than the anticipated July launch for the US.

Google Assistant will also be built into Google Maps so you can use voice commands to call up tunes or send texts to friends while you are in navigation mode in the car.

Your own personal secretary

One of the more remarkable AI-powered features of Google Assistant that will be rolled out later this year has the potential to be a killer app for those who hate the hassle of booking appointments.

Google is testing a service that lets your assistant call businesses, such as restaurants or your hair salon, to book appointments, or find out operating hours.

The demos played at I/O involved remarkably human-like speech from Google Assistant, even accounting for fast speech, long and unstructured remarks from the human on the other end of the phone.

How this will work in a wider range of contexts - phoning the fish and chip shop to place and order, or dealing with a courier company, is yet to be seen, but Google expects robo-calls from its assistant to boost trade for small businesses.

Smarter maps

Google Maps will become even more context-aware in a bid you introduce you to things in your neighbourhood. A new feature will mine the star reviews people leave rating restaurants and other businesses, your own review profile, location and preferences to give you a “match” profile. Say you like cheap eats and burgers and are in the city centre - you may find Google’s algorithm pointing you towards McDonalds.

Curated information from “trusted sources” will also feature in Maps to give you an idea of the events going on in your area, in a bid to shake you out of the rut of doing the same things and visiting the same places all the time.

Google Lens, the app that arrived last year and which lets you translate images of street signs and restaurant menus in near real-time will now be built directly into the camera software of smartphones from the likes of Nokia, Motorola and Google’s own Pixel phone, including a great feature that lets you copy and paste text from the real world into digital form.

Do you ever get confused by the little blue dot and arrow in Google Maps that is supposed to point the direction you are supposed to take? Google has a solution - using your phone’s camera to merge the map and pointer with the real world in front of you. They are even experimenting with having a guide, in this case, a red fox, walking in front to show the navigationally challenged the way forward.

Big revamp for Google News

Google News is a go-to news aggregator on the web, but has remained largely unchanged from a structural point of view in recent years.

That changes with an overhaul of the website promoted by the rise of fake news and social media’s tendency to immerse you in an echo chamber of re-affirming views.

Google News gets more intelligent in the era of fake news.

 Google News, in the coming months, will curate a daily briefing of the top five most important stories of the day organised for you, and let you deep dive into a story for access to a range of credible sources.

A “full coverage “ feature, which will come into its own when major news is breaking, will use machine learning to pull incredible sources, tweets and quotes from key personalities and create a timeline of major events in the life of the story.

To what extent this will be customised for New Zealand news is yet to be seen, but the extent to which AI powers the content selection, suggests it could be rolled out for local use fairly quickly.

Perhaps the biggest Google News update, and a nod to the deteriorating economics of the news business, is a move to allow Google News users to take a subscription to their favourite news publishers from within the app.

Google will manage all of your subscriptions in one place. While it has allowed you to sign up to digital subscriptions before, through Google Play, the easy access to a paid option in Google News could prove a useful sales channel for publishers struggling to sign up paid users directly on their websites.

Android overhaul

Android P is the new version of the operating system powering Google’s mobile ambitions.

This iteration focuses on convenience and decluttering your digital life - it will do clever things like auto-select the right screen brightness for you based on your surroundings and embed “slices” of information related to apps on your phone, within Google search results.

 Digital wellness is a new focus of the Android P.

The operating system will predict what apps it thinks you are going to use during the day, which Google’s claims has resulted in a 30 per cent reduction in the use of the phone’s processor, meaning your battery life will go further.

But perhaps the most fundamental change in Android is the introduction of digital wellness tools, a response perhaps to the “Time Well Spent” movement sweeping Silicon Valley and aimed at curbing mobile phone addiction and a more healthy relationship with technology.

New features include an inbuilt feature to tell you how much time you are spending in each app on your phone and giving you the ability to set time limits on app usage, a common feature of third-party apps, but never before built into Android itself.

Another feature will automatically turn your phone to ‘do not disturb’ mode when you place it face down on the table, to eliminate the usual intrusive flow of alerts and messaging updates. A nighttime feature will turn your phone display to greyscale at a pre-arranged time to cut down on glare and hopefully set you up for a better night’s sleep.

Incremental change, more pervasive AI

There is more to come at Google I/O over the next couple of days, but it is fair to say there’s no one major product drawing attention here. Google has seven products with one billion users. The strategy appears one of consolidation, using artificial intelligence and machine learning to make much used and loved products more intuitive, more useful.

As big tech companies face growing scrutiny and calls for regulation, that may be a smart move, but big questions remain about algorithms when it comes to transparency, accuracy and bias, particularly as they increasingly call the shots in our day-to-day lives.


- Peter Griffin attended Google I/O in Mountain View as a guest of Google