Google I/O 2016 is all about AI

Google Search’s Star Trek Future (I/O 2016)

This Google I/O is the tenth since the event first started and like each one over the last few years, every announcement, strategic direction hint, vision statement and omission is endlessly poured over, speculated about and then discussed. 

The last time a commercial company held this much power to directly affect the lives of so many people with the direction of its commercial decisions and social initiatives it was the 16th century, King James VI was on the throne and a Midnight Summer’s Dream was just a couple of years old.   

Google’s eminence on the web, its command of digital and its global marketshare of a space where eventually everyone will spend at least part of their life places us in uncharted waters in terms of the social structures we create and the peripheral economies that depend upon it. 

Its current set of announcements and presentations of products and services some of which are still in alpha is important not just because of what is currently being done but because they also reveal directions that will shape the digital landscape and determine consumer behavior and changes in the marketing of products. Google’s current developments and announcements also act as the weathervane of the digital industry, pointing to what’s hot for developers and researchers as well as what we will be seeing emerging in the consumer electronics market. 

Search With Everything

On page 170 of Google Semantic Search while covering the list of criteria a modern business needs to become more visible on the web I explicitly stated that “Semantic search maps meaning and intent.” The end result of that approach is context. As we moved from Boolean search of old with its “ten little blue links” and keyword-driven world to semantic search, the focus of the results provided has also shifted the nature of context itself. 

Context changes everything because it has the power to change the meaning of sentences and words “pizza” searched for at lunchtime, on foot, via a smartphone may have a very different meaning and intent than “pizza” searched for at 9.00am via a desktop computer. And both of these have significant, practical implications for pizzeria owners and those who sell pizza making equipment or publish pizza recipes. 

Because search drives our world now more than ever it is important to understand that basically every technological development has lasting value only if it allows us to navigate the sea of data we are in, better and more effectively. 

 

This includes apps and virtual reality and augmented reality products. During Google’s I/O this year the following trends became evident, many of which have been in the pipeline for some time which is what makes my book on semantic search appear so prescient and ahead of its time. 

  • Context has shifted. Whereas in the past context was powered by content which then surfaced in search and had to be sifted through by us, now it is our context that determines what will appear in search. This is a significant shift which we shall see affecting more services and products than just Google’s. In practical terms it means that websites (and the businesses behind them) will surface only when they have correctly positioned themselves to address a need or a want (i.e. intent determined by context) felt by their audience. This places even more importance on the qualitative aspects of a business like reputation, authenticity and empathy and it changes the concept of “brand value” from a brand that is perceived to be big and important and therefore valuable to one that is felt to be useful and maybe even absolutely necessary.
  • Voice interface is becoming the norm. While it may still feel a little weird to talk to our laptop when we are looking for something the form factor of our other devices (smartphones, tablets and wearables) makes it the default option of interacting. Voice search is something I covered extensively in Google Semantic Search. It requires natural language processing which is where Google has been making huge inroads thanks to machinelearning breakthroughs which then go on to power many other aspects of Artificial Intelligence (AI). When Google CEO Sundar Pichai mentioned Google Home he also stressed that search is built in. This leads us to the next natural development.
  • Knowledge rather than facts. On page 22 of Google Semantic Search I detailed how Google is building a knowledge engine rather than a search engine. The distinction is significant. While search requires facts, knowledge requires connections and the mining of the relationships between disparate facts. Search embedded in Google search, or Allo (Google’s new messaging app) requires knowledge about the world and knowledge about the user. The connection is a subtle one. Because we interact with devices using voice there is a strong affective dimension in our relationship with them. In a direct lesson to marketers everywhere, that affective element amplifies the depth of our connection with the brand behind the service (in this case Google) and increases our willingness to use its products and services and devote more of our attention to it.
  • Assistive technology that helps us get stuff done. Just like the crew of the USS Starship Enterprise relies on their omniscient Star Trek computer, we are becoming more and more reliant on our devices and the apps that drive them to simply know what we want, when we want it and, sometimes, before we want it. Assistive technology requires AI and Google’s products like the chatbot in Allo and the AI suggesting replies in Inbox are making full use of the approach. 

The Trends That Will Affect You

The distinction between the online and offline world is now blurring sufficiently for classifiers such as “online” and “digital” to become almost obsolete. If you have a business, if you are involved in marketing, if you are thinking of having some kind of career, you need to know that Google search now is active in three distinct but related areas: 

  • Text
  • Image recognition
  • Natural Language Processing

All three are powered more and more by machinelearning and AI and developments in one area feed directly into the others. All revolve around context and intent in the way they generate knowledge out of facts and information. 

When you ‘know’ things you can use that knowledge to perform two very specific actions:

  • You can more accurately predict what’s going to happen next
  • You can help those around you to do some things more easily

Google’s products are making full use of predictive and assistive technology to perform exactly like that. Again this is an incremental, subtle approach that increases with use and creates device and service dependencies for the end user. Google’s foray in VR is new but even there it is integrating virtual Google products so that even when we are immersed in a fully digital world we can use services we are familiar with in non-VR life. 

Google has always been open about its intent to create products and services we all use at least twice a day (the toothbrush effect) and to do so it relies on two very specific elements that form part of its overall strategy and which were very much in evidence in this year’s I/O:

  • Reliability
  • Control

Reliability for search means sorting out the tricky element of Veracity (in the 4Vs that drive Big Data). For Video it means picture fidelity and stability of the connection and for audio it means clarity. Google’s incremental improvements to how video renders on devices across low bandwidth connections and the speed at which products like Duo work are driven by the need for reliability. 

The one other thing Google has historically always done is place the user at the center of its offerings and provide complete control. As users we can control how much data we reveal, when and why and have the choice to at least make some decisions over what we want to provide by way of information in relation to what we can expect in terms of performance of services and products we consume. 

In all of this the affective connection is very much in effect. Google is not asking us to love its brand, devices or products and services but by making them responsive, unobtrusive, versatile and useful it hopes that the relationship that develops is one that will last.   

   

© 2017 David Amerland. All rights reserved