Google’s I/O conference offers a modest glimpse of the future

SAN FRANCISCO — There was a time when Google offered a wonderful vision of the future, with self-driving cars, augmented reality glasses, unlimited email and photo storage, and predictive text to complete sentences in progress.

A more modest Google was on display Wednesday as the company kicked off its annual developer conference. The Google of 2022 is more pragmatic and no-nonsense, a bit more like its business-focused competitors at Microsoft than a fantasy gaming venue for tech enthusiasts.

And that, to all appearances, is by design. The bold vision is still available, but it’s a long way off. The professional executives who now run Google are increasingly focused on making money from those years of spending on research and development.

The company’s biggest bet on artificial intelligence does not mean, at least for now, that science fiction comes to life. It means more subtle changes to existing products.

“AI is improving our products, making them more useful, more accessible, and bringing innovative new features to everyone,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said on Wednesday.

In a short presentation of awesome moments, Google emphasized that its products were “useful.” In fact, Google executives used the words “help,” “helping,” or “helpful” more than 50 times during two hours of keynote speeches, including a marketing campaign for its new hardware products with the line: “When try to help, we can’t help but help.”

It unveiled a cheaper version of its Pixel smartphone, a round-screen smartwatch, and a new tablet coming next year. (“The most useful tablet in the world”).

The biggest applause came from a new Google Docs feature in which the company’s AI algorithms automatically summarize a long document into a single paragraph.

At the same time, it wasn’t immediately clear how some of the other groundbreaking work, such as language models that better understand natural conversation or that can break a task into smaller logical steps, will ultimately lead to the next generation of computing. that Google has. promoted

Certainly some of the new ideas seem useful. In a demonstration of how Google continues to improve its search technology, the company showed off a feature called “multiple search,” in which a user can take a picture of a shelf full of chocolates and then find the best nut-free dark chocolate bar. valued. the picture.

In another example, Google showed how you can find an image of a specific dish, like Korean stir-fried noodles, and then search for nearby restaurants that serve that dish.

Much of those capabilities are powered by deep technological work Google has done for years using so-called machine learning, image recognition, and natural language understanding. It’s a sign of an evolution rather than a revolution for Google and other big tech giants.

Many companies can create digital services more easily and quickly than in the past thanks to shared technologies such as cloud computing and storage, but creating the underlying infrastructure, such as AI language models, is so expensive and time consuming that only the richest companies can do it. invest in them.

As is often the case at Google events, the company didn’t spend a bit of time explaining how it makes money. Google brought up the subject of advertising, which still accounts for 80 percent of the company’s revenue, after an hour of other ads, highlighting a new feature called My Ad Center. It will allow users to request fewer ads from certain brands or highlight topics they would like to see more ads about.

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