Google CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off his company’s annual Google I/O developer conference on Tuesday by trumpeting the benefits of artificial intelligence technologies.
He briefly acknowledged public concern about tech companies and the increasing role their products play in people’s lives. But he steered clear of any specific examples of trouble, like the Russian misinformation campaign during the 2016 elections or Facebook’s (FB) recent data privacy problems involving political consulting firm Cambridge Analytica.
“We know the path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately,” Pichai said at the event in Mountain View, Calif. “And we know we have a deep sense of responsibility to get this right.”
But the rise of AI technologies also creates some potentially negative consequences like job loss that many researchers believe are more likely than doomsday scenarios in which robots turn on their human masters.
With Google positioning itself as an AI company, it has a lot to lose if the public has a negative perception of AI. So it made sense that Pichai discussed how Google says is using AI to benefit society.
He cited examples like using AI to analyze retinal scans, which could be used to better predict the chances of a person having future heart problems. Pichai also explained how Google used AI to create more accurate closed captioning for the hearing impaired, even if two people on screen are shouting over one another.
Pichai then talked about some of the company’s latest product updates, all use AI in some way. Here are four other interesting tidbits from his talk:
1. Google Photos gets smarter
Google Photos can now do take on more of the job of photo editor like pointing out to users that an overly dark photo they took could use some brightening up. The service can also suggest that its users do things like share pictures with people in the image, based on the machine-learning technology automatically recognizing them.
People will also be able to take pictures of documents with their smartphones and have Google Photos convert them into PDF files. This could be helpful for people who need to make digital copies of physical documents that they can further tweak like a conventional PDF file rather than a static image.
Google Photos will also be able to convert old black and white digital photos into color versions. While Pichai spoke, an old black-and-white photo of a woman and child sitting in a swing was converted into Technicolor.
2. Google Assistant gets an upgrade and teaches kids manners
Scott Huffman, Google Assistant vice president of engineering, briefly appeared during Pichai’s talk to explain how Google’s voice-activated digital assistant is getting “smarter.”
Google Assistant can now understand more complicated sentences, he explained. In a test, Huffman asked the Google Assistant who was California’s governor and which team drafted basketball superstar Kevin Durant. As expected, the digital assistant responded by saying Arnold Schwarzenegger was governor in 2007, and that the Seattle Supersonics drafted Durant the same year.
Huffman also said that heard parents complain that Google Assistant is trains children to be bossy, because they expect the digital assistant to always give them what they want. As a result, parents will be able to activate a setting in Google Assistant that would require children to say “please.” If they fail to follow through, Google Assistant will gently remind them and then thank them for doing so.
3. Powerful chips for artificial intelligence
Pichai unveiled the latest version of the search giant’s custom AI computer chips (TPUs), which has become an annual event at I/O. He didn’t go into the technical details, but said that the chips are so powerful that Google now uses liquid cooling technology in its data centers to reduce the excessive heat that the servers inside create.
Google is promoting its custom AI chips to companies that are interested in using its cloud computing service to do heavy-duty data crunching more efficiently. Google’s chip announcement comes a day after Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella bragged about Microsoft’s competing chips for machine-learning tasks and claimed that they were faster than Google’s.
4. Google Will Remind You If You Are Watching Too Much YouTube
Pichai also said that Google is working on several new features to improve the well-being of people who use its technology. Based on Google’s internal research, Pichai said that “people feel tethered to their devices,” so the company is developing ways to help people “switch off and wind down” so they can spend more time with their families. Although Pichai didn’t mention it, many digital skeptics have been urging companies like Google and Apple to address the problem of smartphone addiction.
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A new feature for the Android operating system, Pichai explained, will show people how much time they spend using their smartphones as well as how often they unlock them or receive notifications. The idea is to get people to question how much time they spend staring at their phone screens. Another tweak is aimed at YouTube users that will remind them to take a break, Pichai said. If people watch cat videos, for instance, they would get a notification saying: “Time to take a break? You’ve been watching for 1 hour.”