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Google readying AI for prime time

Google's highly anticipated modular smartphone (above), named project Ara, will be released next year.
Google's highly anticipated modular smartphone (above), named project Ara, will be released next year.PHOTO: GOOGLE
The tech giant's Android N operating system, can power the software of a car (above) to let users get directions, adjust the air-conditioning, or change music tracks with their voice or by tapping on the touchscreen.
The tech giant's Android N operating system, can power the software of a car (above) to let users get directions, adjust the air-conditioning, or change music tracks with their voice or by tapping on the touchscreen.PHOTO: GOOGLE

Tech giant wants to be in every home and in all personal devices

Google wants its artificial intelligence (AI) technologies to be part of every home and personal device.

One of the big announcements at the three-day Google I/O (Input/ Output) conference in Mountain View, California, last week was the Google Home virtual assistant. Shaped like a vase-sized cylinder, it competes with the Amazon Echo in being the brains for a smart home.

Home is powered by Google Assistant, which was the second big announcement from I/O. Assistant is a souped-up voice recognition, search and artificial intelligence software that allows a user to communicate directly with a device as though it were another person.

For instance, the user can say "turn off the lights" or "book tickets for the Jungle Book movie tonight", and the Assistant software will perform the function.

Speaking at the I/O keynote, Google chief executive Sundar Pichai said: "We believe the real test is whether humans can achieve a lot more with the support of AI assisting them. Things previously thought to be impossible may, in fact, be possible."

It is at I/O that Google lays out its new products, mobile updates and new developer tools for the year.

The company also announced a new messaging app, named Allo, which will be available later this year. Besides allowing user-to-user chat, Allo serves as an intelligent chatbot - users can ask questions and it will give its answers.

These new products are all powered by advances in machine learning, which was a key theme at this year's conference.

"Machine learning is actually Google's biggest long-term advantage in the upcoming years," said IDC senior research manager Kenneth Liew.

"Google is placing large bets on artificial intelligence, ubiquitous assistants and voice interfaces, hoping that these will become part and parcel of every consumer's life."

Users of Google's minimalist laptops, the Chromebook, also received news of the long-awaited integration of the Google Play Store into the Chromebooks' operating system, ChromeOS.

This means Chromebook users - including pupils of Ministry of Education-run primary schools - can, later this year, download and enjoy the millions of mobile apps available to Android users on their laptops, which significantly boosts the Chromebook's functionality.

"This might be a game-changer in the personal computing space," said Mr Liew.

The users will no longer be constrained by the limited app selection on Chromebooks and can have access to tools such as photo-editing apps and Skype, along with thousands of games on the Play Store.

Google also announced new features on its Android mobile platform, such as virtual reality support for its latest version, Android N, as well as updates to its wearables (see other stories).

Some of the more exciting announcements were made by Google's top-secret Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP) group on the last day of the conference.

Google's highly anticipated modular smartphone, named project Ara, will be released next year, a year after LG released the first smartphone that tested the waters of such technology.

A modular smartphone allows users to swop parts of the device on-the-fly according to their needs, such as replacing the basic camera with a wide-angle camera module for landscape shots.

Google's Ara smartphone will come with six modular slots to suit a variety of needs, ranging from camera to battery to speaker slots for users to adapt their phone into their own personal device.

ATAP also announced wearable technology that's not on the wrist, with the first consumer product from its smart clothes department. Under Project Jacquard, Google is tying up with denim manufacturer Levi's on a denim trucker jacket with a touch-sensitive sleeve cuff .

The jacket is designed with cyclists in mind, so they can tap or swipe on the left cuff to send instructions to their mobile phone synced to the jacket, such as changing songs in a playlist, getting navigation directions or answering calls.

Google also showed off a concept car whose internal workings were running solely off on Android N, Google's latest operating system, slated for release this year.

The software is built into the car, and lets users adjust the air-conditioning temperature, get navigation directions, make calls, and more - all electronically through a tablet by the driver's seat.

Going virtual with Google

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 25, 2016, with the headline 'Google readying AI for prime time'. Print Edition | Subscribe