Google’s mission for the past 21 years has been to organize the world’s information. Onstage at the company’s annual developer conference Tuesday, CEO Sundar Pichai had a more low-key message: We just wanna help.
As corporate messaging goes, it was a smart choice. After years of nonstop scandals from Big Tech, the usual buzzwords have taken on a sinister cast. In the real world, “disruption ” has translated into offloading risks on others, “convenience” connotes data collection, and “the transformative power of AI ” sounds like the algorithms have won. But who could say no to a little help?
In truth, the new features and products Google announced onstage are in line with the company’s recent focus on the magic that results when machine learning excellence meets mountains of data . What was new was the way these offerings were framed: You’ve asked us for this and and we heard you, executives said over and over onstage.
With Google’s new transcription tool, users can watch and understand videos without playing audio, if they’re in the subway or in a meeting—a much more common scenario than the specialized problems tech executives often describe. Google Assistant will offer “the power of a Google data center in your pocket,” said Scott Huffman, a vice president of engineering, allowing you to text a friend, search your recent photos, and find the right one to text them, all through voice commands. With Google Lens, users can point at a sign and have it read aloud or translated into another language and then read aloud. And with voice commands Google Duplex can now handle annoying multipage website transactions, like renting a car.
The second half of Google’s helper theme was helping “everyone.” There, Google tried to anticipate and answer many of the recent concerns about AI. Pichai talked about making AI more transparent to reduce bias, including a tool Google developed to show why AI makes particular decisions. Now imagine an AI system that is fair and works for every skin color, Pichai said, standing in front of a grid of skin tones.
Google isn’t the only company customizing its message to match the prevailing mood. On Monday, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella told WIRED that the once insular company is now all about openness. And at F8 last month, Mark Zuckerberg tried to convince the crowd he had pivoted to privacy . Google also raised privacy repeatedly; its solution seems to be running machine learning on your device so the data never leaves your phone.
It sounded reassuring, until you consider how Google plans to monetize all these helpful, privacy-friendly offerings. The business incentive for Google wasn’t really discussed onstage. But if you forgot, there was always the "Google Control Is Not Privacy” banner, paid for by a group protesting the company’s impact on journalism, flying overhead.
Aparna Chennapragada, vice president of Google Lens & AR, said it was too soon to discuss whether the helpful new services would use the same ad-based business model as search. “We’re first trying to solve the user problem here,” Chennapragada told WIRED. “The monetization in many cases follows, especially where there’s user intent.”
For Google, this year’s theme also neatly addressed another looming problem for Big Tech: People are less interested in new phones and newness in general. Google’s hoping if its products are useful enough, you’ll be helpless to resist.
Tom Simonite contributed reporting.
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At the time, Google's support page claimed that "With Location History off, the places you go are no longer stored." After the AP report was published, the company updated the language to say, "Your settings for other location services on your device, like Google Location Services and Find My Device, are not changed." This impacts Android users and iPhone users who have the Google Maps app.Google said it collects this data to "improve people’s experience" and allows people to delete this history whenever they want.