Google to rivals: you can’t match our AI

The big four in technology – Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon – are on a collision course. The battleground? Artificial intelligence.

In front of 7,500 people at Google’s big I/0 conference last night, the CEO Sundar Pichai used his keynote address to take a swipe at Google’s rivals: Apple, Facebook, and, especially, Amazon.

Apple, Facebook, Amazon and Google all started in very different places. One was a computer maker. One was a retailer. One was a website for sharing with friends. One was a search bar. But over time, they’ve evolved into the “big four” of the technology industry. And they’re on a collision course.

Apple competes with Google over its Android mobile phone operating system, its maps, messaging, and its media store…

Facebook competes with Google for advertising dollars and messaging…

Amazon competes with Google on its media store, Android tablets, online storage and now, in its “connected home” device.

And all four of them are competing with each other over the next huge market. They’re competing to build a computer that can understand and speak in natural language, like a person. The company that cracks natural language will win messaging, the connected home, search, and probably a lot more.

The prize

How do you build a talking, listening robot? Machine learning.

If you’re not sure what machine learning means then you haven’t been reading Risk and Reward lately. And I need to work on my subject lines…

Quick summary of what I’ve written so far: I started out by explaining the computer science behind machine learning… the five different ways to build a learning machinethe big breakthrough: deep learninghow companies are putting machine learning to work … and how to invest in them. A solid week’s work.

Basically, Google is better at machine learning than anyone. Apple, Amazon, Facebook… anyone. “Somewhere between 5% and 50%” of the world’s top machine learning experts are on its payroll. And thanks to its search bar, it has more and better data than anyone else (that’s important, because you need lots of data to train an AI robot).

Here’s how Kevin Kelly, a journalist, described it in an article a couple of years ago:

“At first glance, you might think that Google is beefing up its AI portfolio to improve its search capabilities, since search contributes 80 percent of its revenue. But I think that’s backward.

Rather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better. Every time you type a query, click on a search-generated link, or create a link on the web, you are training the Google AI.

When you type “Easter Bunny” into the image search bar and then click on the most Easter Bunny-looking image, you are teaching the AI what an Easter bunny looks like. Each of the 12.1 billion queries that Google’s 1.2 billion searchers conduct each day tutor the deep-learning AI over and over again.

With another 10 years of steady improvements to its AI algorithms, plus a thousand-fold more data and 100 times more computing resources, Google will have an unrivalled AI. My prediction: By 2024, Google’s main product will not be search but AI.”

Watching the stream of the I/0 conference last night, Kelly’s 2024 prediction looks conservative. Google went big on artificial intelligence and machine learning. Its three biggest product announcements were about rolling out AI to customers.

As Sundar Pichai put it, “Things previously thought to be impossible, may indeed be possible.”

Assistant is an AI-powered robot app which does your bidding. It works using voice commands.

Allo is a standard texting app like WhatsApp or Facebook Messenger that comes with an AI-powered helper.

Home is a kind of AI-powered vase. It sits in your living room and works using voice commands. It’s meant to be the centre of “the connected home”, which is a new market Silicon Valley is gunning for. Amazon got to it first.

Amazon stole a march on Google, and everyone else, when it launched the Echo last year. Nobody was expecting much of the Echo. It’s a voice-operated black cylindrical speaker which lives in your kitchen and basically does what you tell it: it buys stuff online, plays songs, starts a timer, sets an alarm. It’s been a huge hit. It’s getting rave reviews and selling well. It’s the first proper example of how a “connected home” can work. And it’s the first proper example of a device that’s first and foremost operated by voice.

Google prides itself on its ability to handle natural language, so it’s not happy about the Echo. Sundar Pichai had a catty comment about it at the Home launch last night:

“What makes Google Home really shine is it has search built in. It draws on 17 years of innovation in organizing the world’s information to answer questions which are difficult for other assistants to handle”.

Apple’s voice activated technology, Siri, is way behind Google at this point. So is Facebook’s and so is Amazon’s, despite Amazon’s head start with the Echo.

Amazon got there first. Google has the best technology. Apple has the most resources. Facebook is the fastest growing.

I can’t wait to see who wins.

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