Sundar Pichai says the future of Google is AI. But can he fix the algorithm?
‘We feel huge responsibility’ to get information right
Meanwhile, in Australia, a Machine Learning treasure trove:Unbeknownst to me, at the very moment on Monday morning when I was asking Google CEO Sundar Pichai about the biggest ethical concern for AI today, Google's algorithms were promoting misinformation about the Las Vegas shooting.I was asking in the context of the aftermath of the 2016 election and the misinformation that companies like Facebook, Twitter, and Google were found to have spread. Pichai, I found out later, had a rough idea that something was going wrong with one of his algorithms as we were speaking. So his answer, I think it's fair to say, also serves as a response to the widespread criticisms the company faced in the days after the shooting."I view it as a big responsibility to get it right," he says. "I think we'll be able to do these things better over time. But I think the answer to your question, the short answer and the only answer, is we feel huge responsibility." Later, he added, "Today, we overwhelmingly get it right. But I think every single time we stumble. I feel the pain, and I think we should be held accountable."Learning about Google's "stumble" after we talked put some of our conversation in a different light. I was there to talk about how Pichai’s project to realign the entire company to an "AI-first" footing was going in the lead-up to Google's massive hardware event. Google often seems like the leader in weaving AI into its products; that’s certainly Pichai’s relentless focus. But it’s worth questioning whether Google’s systems are making the right decisions, even as they make some decisions much easier.When the subject isn't the failure of its news algorithms, Pichai is enthusiastic about AI. There’s not much difference between an enthusiastic Sundar Pichai and a quiet, thoughtful Sundar Pichai, but you get a sense of it when he names a half-dozen Google products that have been improved by its deep learning systems off the top of his head.Google's lead in doing clever, innovative things with AI is impressive, and the examples Pichai cites can sometimes even verge on inspiring — but there's clearly still work to do.
Most executives talk about AI like it's just another thing that's included in the box or in its cloud; it's a buzzword, a tick box on a spec sheet slotted in right after the processor. But Pichai is intent on pressing Google's advantage in AI — not just by integrating AI features into every product it makes, but by making products that are themselves inspired by AI, products that wouldn't be conceivable without it.
There's no better example of that than Google Clips, a tiny little camera that automatically captures seven-second moving photos of things it finds "interesting." It's a new way to think about photography, one that leverages Google's ability to do lots of different AI tasks: recognize faces, recognize "bad" photos, recognize "interesting" content. It's simply applied to your own pictures instead of content on the internet.Clips does all this locally: nothing is sent to the cloud, and nothing integrates with whatever Google Photos knows about you. As much as Google is known for doing its AI in the cloud, many of the devices it's releasing are doing AI locally. Pichai says that's by design, and that both kinds of AI are necessary. "A hybrid approach absolutely makes sense," he says. "We will thoughtfully invest in both. Depending on the context, depending on what you're dealing with, it'll make sense to deploy it differently."Clips is the kind of thing Pichai wants Google to do more of. "I made a deliberate decision to name the hardware product with [a] software name," he says. "The reason we named it Clips is that the more exciting part of it is … the machine learning, the computer vision work we do underneath the scenes."For Google, making hardware is about selling products, but it's also about learning how hardware can better integrate AI. "It's really tough to drive the future of computing forward if you're not able to think about these things together," Pichai says. Fundamentally, his question about every hardware product is "how do we apply AI to rethink our products?" He doesn't want to make AI just another feature, he wants AI to fundamentally alter what each device is.Some of those half-dozen AI examples Pichai cites are solutions to problems you might not realize could be solved with AI. Recently, Google Maps added the ability to find parking near your destination. What you might not know is that Google isn't just canvasing local parking garages; it's using AI.
"It's fascinating," Pichai says. The Maps team applied AI to see whether Google Maps users were finding parking easily when they arrived at their destinations. "They have to distinguish between people who have just shown up in a Lyft and gotten out, versus actually driving the car and getting parking quickly."We've gotten used to lots of online services quietly getting better thanks to AI, but Pichai wants to drive that even more aggressively into the devices we're using. In short, he wants to have AI change the user interface of our phones."The product can learn and adapt over time," Pichai says. "You see very little of that today. My favorite [example] is I open Google Fit [every day] to a certain view, and I navigate to a different view." One wonders why he doesn't just wander over to the Google Fit team and ask them to change it. Instead, apparently, he would like AI to realize what you're doing with your phone "300 times a year" and make it simpler....MUCH MORE
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