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Everything weird and wonderful Google announced at I/O 2021

May 19, 2021, 2:14 PM UTC

It often feels like Google and Apple are locked in an epic battle of the old 1970s kids’ game Gnip Gnop.

That’s the one where you madly pounded on three buttons to try and shoot a bunch of ping-pong balls over to your opponent’s side of a plastic-enclosed board, while your opponent did the same. “You’re trying to out gnip him while he’s trying to out gnop you,” the narrator of the slightly sexist TV commercial used to say. Smashing ping pong balls without the whole hand-eye coordination thing? Sign me up.

On Tuesday, Google kicked off its I/O developer conference with one of the most jam-packed keynotes of all time. CEO Sundar Pichai and an extensive team of subordinates were gnipping so fast that Tim Cook and the Cupertino crew must have been gnopping until their hands hurt.

Some of what was unveiled was mere catch-up to the iPhone. Android 12 software is getting indicator lights when the camera and mic are in use, a remote control app for TVs, a car key-like function for BMWs, and notifications that bunch up by app. Google also emphasized that sensitive user information needed to fuel A.I. features like smart reply or speech recognition would be kept on the user’s phone, not sent to Google for analysis. Similar on-phone processing has been a highlighted iPhone feature for several years.

But what the two-hour session actually highlighted was the immense differences in approach, products, and culture between the two giants of mobile computing.

For one, Google didn’t announce a single new device, service, or product that consumers can buy. Despite rumors, there was no unveiling of new Pixel phones, no new Chromebooks, not even a smart speaker or noise cancelling pair of earbuds on display. Instead, Google was pressing its advantage in cloud computing and artificial intelligence at every turn. The only hardware discussed was a new version of Google’s Tensor Processing Unit A.I. chip and some prototype quantum computing gear that could lead to a usable quantum machine by the end of the decade.

Still, all of Google’s prowess in A.I. offered plenty of unique and even jaw-dropping new features for Pichai’s team to show off.

This is still Google, so they started with the weird. A newly developed A.I. language app called LaMDA demonstrated its ability to carry on a free wheeling conversation while posing as the dwarf planet Pluto and a paper airplane. Project Starline uses high-resolution cameras and incredible compression technology to project a realistic 3-D avatar of a person across the Internet.

At a more practical level, new A.I. features in the Maps app will pick safer routes that avoid dangerous intersections or routes that use the least fuel. The photos app gains the ability to find photos with similar themes or recurring images. Phones running Android 12 will alter the color palette of the operating system’s icons and other elements to match the hues of a photo used as wallpaper. And a new app called dermatology assist, which has been approved first in Europe, uses A.I. image processing to analyze skin conditions and pull up relevant medical information.

Google has also been listening to some of the biggest complaints about our smartphone-dominated world. Updates for the Android camera app will produce more accurate pictures of people with darker skin and curly or wavy hair. The password manager in Android and Chrome will go beyond offering alerts of compromised passwords and help users change those passwords. And after Lauren Goode’s aching story about being constantly reminded of her cancelled wedding by photos on her phone, Google added a feature to remove photos from its memory feature by person, time period, or individual images. “We heard from you that controls can be helpful for anyone who has been through a tough life event, break up, or loss,” vice president Shimrit Ben-Yar explained in one of the most emotional moments of the keynote.

Did I say Google was listening to some complaints? Only some. There’s one big topic of discussion they weren’t ready to address. After Apple started warning people about being tracked across iPhone apps with its new app tracking transparency feature, Google had no response. “There’s obviously a lot changing in the ecosystem,” Google vice president Sameer Samat told the Verge’s Dieter Bohn in a video interview when he was asked about Apple’s new policy. Stay tuned for “more later this year,” he said.

On privacy related to advertising trackers at least, Apple has gnipped but Google has yet to gnop.

Aaron Pressman
@ampressman
aaron.pressman@fortune.com

NEWSWORTHY

Journey to the center of the CPU. Speaking of Apple, all of the company's non-Intel Mac computers so far have used the same chip, the 8-core M1. Now Bloomberg reports a second wave of devices is on the way featuring more powerful silicon and many more cores per chip. First up will be revised versions of the MacBook Pro notebooks as soon as early summer.

No time to say hello goodbye. It has been a few years since Microsoft first showed off its Neo dual-screened notebook computer. There's been no sign of it since, and on Tuesday the company announced it was further delaying its special Windows 10X software intended for such devices. Instead of completing the product, "we are leveraging learnings from our journey thus far and accelerating the integration of key foundational 10X technology into other parts of Windows and products at the company," VP John Cable wrote in a blog post.

Hasta la vista, AI. Less than a year after halting use of its Rekognition facial recognition app by police, Amazon says it will make the ban permanent. The app set off a debate over potential misuse by law enforcement and racially biased results.

Charged in the USA. We are closely following the development of electric pickup trucks, and apparently so is President Biden. Ford unveiled an upcoming electric version of its best-selling F-150 with the President on hand. Biden took the rig for a quick joy ride. “This sucker’s quick,” Biden told reporters.

Crypto chickens come home to roost. Digital currencies continued plummeting over the past few days. Bitcoin, which peaked at close to $65,000 way back in April, was still trading above $58,000 two weeks ago. This morning, it plunged down near $30,000 before rebounding around $35,000. Ethereum, which was over $4,000 last Friday, dropped to around $2,700.

How much is that spaceship in the window? Jeff Bezos' Blue Origin rocket company disclosed the initial results of its auction for a space tourist. The current high bid for the July rocket ride is $1.4 million after more than 5,000 bidders in 136 countries submitted bids. Now the auction continues online but in public view through June 10. On June 12, the final round will be held live online.

FOOD FOR THOUGHT

The rate of depression among young people has been rising over the past decade, but scientists are still searching for the underlying cause. Much of the debate has revolved around the coincident rising use of social media, as Miles Parks reports for NPR.

"The correlational evidence showing that there is a link between social media use and depression is pretty definitive at this point," said Jean Twenge, a psychology professor at San Diego State University. "The largest and most well-conducted studies that we have all show that teens who spend more time on social media are more likely to be depressed or unhappy."

Correlation is not causation, and one area of further study is whether greater social media usage leads to poor mental health outcomes or whether those who are depressed and unhappy are drawn to spend more time on social media. But researchers also worry that not enough government funding is going toward getting objective data to answer these sorts of questions.

IN CASE YOU MISSED IT

Amazon Prime Day 2021: When can you expect it? Is it worth the hype? By Chris Morris

PayPal CFO: ‘Profit and purpose are not mutually exclusive’ By Sheryl Estrada

Macy’s says its shoppers are ‘ready to get on with life’ By Phil Wahba

Why companies should carefully read government A.I. plans By Jonathan Vanian

Fidelity begins offering no-fee brokerage accounts to teens By Chris Morris

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BEFORE YOU GO

George R.R. Martin published the first novel in his Game of Thrones Series in 1996. Really! But it's been a decade now since the fifth and most recent book came out and fans are losing faith that Martin will ever complete the last two books in the series. At least HBO's TV adaptation concluded, even if the finale was less than satisfying. Author Ty Franck, who used to work for Martin, and his writing partner Daniel Abraham aren't making the same mistake with their epic sci-fi series known as The Expanse (which has also been made into a pretty good TV series).

Jointly writing under the pen name James S.A. Corey, the pair announced on Twitter this week that they have turned in the ninth and final volume of their series to their publisher, so the book should come out later this year. "Also this means I win my bet with @GRRMspeaking that we'd beat him to the finish, which I think means we get all of his treasures," the pair added.

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