As I entered Shoreline Amphitheater on Wednesday, I thought I was attending Google IO – the company’s annual developers conference. But after listening to CEO Sundar Pichai and several other Google executives speak about new products and services, the event felt like it should be renamed Google AI.
Indeed, the first 75 minutes of the two-hour event was focused on how artificial intelligence and specifically generative AI (GAI), is not only the main ingredient of Google Bard, the company’s new conversational, AI chat service, but soon integrated into all its services including search, photos, maps and Google docs. But even the device part of the event focused largely on AI, which is central to the new hardware products they unveiled at the event. Google announced a $499 Pixel 7A phone, a Pixel Tablet starting at $499 and the $1,799 Pixel Fold, the company’s first foldable smart phone.
Good position to compete
While it’s hard to predict how any company or product will do when it comes to a new paradigm shift like GAI, Google is in a good position to compete because it’s already the No. 1 search engine, and as Google executives emphasized during the event, search is a great starting point for AI queries. Google is in the process of retooling search to not only give links but to enhance them with short articles, called AI Snapshots, that it creates on the fly to answer user questions, including questions users pose in conversational language. In a presentation, Google Vice President of Engineering Cathy Edwards demonstrated how a parent could ask Google to recommend a national park for a vacation with kids and a dog and get written answer in addition to search results and planning resources for the vacation.
Google also announced that Bard is now available for anyone to try at bard.google.com, without having to join a waiting list.
Maps and photos
Google Maps is getting AI-generated routing such as generating a video preview of a bike ride before you hop on the bike. Google is also adding AI photo editing to Google photos, making it very easy to move objects or people within a picture or turn a cloudy day into a sunny one. Google is already offering its Magic Eraser tool on Pixel phones that enables you to easily remove objects from a picture without affecting what’s behind them. This AI photo editing is great, but it will make it a lot easier to create “deep fakes” by doctoring pictures. Google also showed off ways that you can use AI to describe what you want to see in a picture and have it generated automatically as a drawing or as what looks like a photograph. I wonder if it could create a picture of me shaking hands with Albert Einstein or George Washington but fear that it could be used to create a fake photo that could defame someone.
Thinking about what could go wrong
Speaking of fear, lots of people, including Google executives, worry about the negative aspects of AI. In a blog post, Google’s Vice President of Technology and Society James Manyika said that “AI must be both bold and responsible” in ways that “maximizes the positive benefits to society while addressing the challenges.” He acknowledged a “natural tension between the two,” adding “we believe it’s possible — and in fact critical — to embrace that tension productively. At least they’re thinking about what could go wrong. I wonder if Henry Ford put much thought into the possible unintended consequences of mass produced automobiles when he was building the Model T back in 1908.
Phones and tablet
Google introduced three new hardware products including the $499 Pixel 7A, which Google loaned me ahead of the event. It’s hard to get excited over any new phone, but if you’re in the market, this is an affordable way to get a water-resistant Android phone with a very good camera, a sleek design, wireless charging and a fast processor. It’s a tiny bit smaller and slightly less powerful than the Pixel 7 but it’s $100 cheaper, and based on a couple of days testing, it feels and performs like a premium phone.
Google also announced an 11-inch tablet starting at $499 with 128 GB of storage or $599 with 256 GB. It has the same high-speed Google Tensor G2 processor as Pixel phones and runs on Android, so it has a very similar interface to Android phones as well as the same AI technology built into the latest versions of Android. Anyone who preorders the phone now gets a free dock, which is both a high quality speaker and charger, turning the tablet into a very useful home smart display while it’s docked while making it very easy to remove it from the dock to use as a portable tablet.
The most interesting, albeit most expensive, new product is its $1,795 Pixel Fold. Folded, it has a 5.8-inch screen, not that different from typical smartphones. But when you unfold it you get a 7.6-inch display, which is just a bit smaller than the 8.3-inch display on the Apple iPad mini. Having a tablet-sized screen is not only better for watching video but makes it easier to multitask with side-by-side display. You can even take a selfie using the higher quality rear camera by folding over the phone and using one screen to frame your shot while taking the picture. One clever application that Google demonstrated is using the phone to translate. The person you’re talking with can read the text in their language on the outer screen while you read it in your language on the other screen.
I’ll have more to report when I have a chance to test the foldable phone, but as far as I can tell, the only major downside is the price. The Fold is $800 more than the combined cost of the Google Tablet and the Google 7A phone, which, for most people, is probably a better investment.
Disclosure: Larry Magid is CEO of ConnectSafely, a non-profit internet safety organization that has received support from Google, Facebook, Microsoft and other technology companies.
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