Google engineer Scott Huffman (Scott Huffman) overlooks Las Vegas skyline at 550 feet. It was a sunny afternoon in early January, and Google came here to launch a marketing blitzkrieg at the world's biggest technology fair, the Consumer Electronics Show (CES), touting Google's assistant, a smart thermostat. Digital software for getting user flight information and reading headlines.
Huffman, the vice president of engineering for this smart assistant, is standing with me in a huge glass ball on the Hawker Ferris wheel. This is the Sin City version of the London Eye Sightseeing Cabin, and we have just reached the apex of the Ferris wheel. Looking down, you can see the Google assistant's wake-up phrase "Hey, Google", a huge letter posted on the Las Vegas Convention Center building. Part of this sentence was blocked by the outdoor frame of another building, making the slogan look like "Hey, Go."
When it comes to smart assistants, “Go” seems to be its unwavering philosophy for Google. Furthermore, this is also a suitable slogan. Since Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai released the software three years ago, the search giant has been working to catch up with Amazon’s assistant Alexa. Alexa beat Google into the market in 2014 and is now a household name. Many people think that this is a product that Google has only made, and Google's mission is to give Internet search and use.
If Google is to win, it has to work harder.
Amazon's Echo devices, backed by Alexa, have nearly 70 voice assistants in the market, according to research firm eMarketer. Google Home Devices, which runs Google's assistant, has less than 1/4 of the market. Canalys, another research firm, predicts that Google could take the crown from Amazon by 2023.
Huffman said, "If you can't grab market share, Google Assistant will be useless. So in the past few years, we have spent a lot of energy to develop and improve Assistant."
If you ask most people what they do with Assistant or Alexa, they might say that voice assistants are perfect for playing songs, setting kitchen timers, and connecting to smart devices to turn off lights. That's good, but Google wants to do more to beat Amazon. Over the past year, Google and Assistant have been developing at the level of science fiction. From now on, Google will only become more ambitious.
With its core machine learning, natural language processing and artificial intelligence, Google has introduced a new feature, the Duplex project. Google hopes to make a robot that simulates vocals, which can help people arrange appointments, and hopes that Assistant can build 27 languages and translate conversations for users in real time.
“But if artificial intelligence is what sets us apart, what is the function of using it to really revolutionize people's lifestyles?” I asked Huffman because I wanted a broad environment to stimulate some reflection.
When talking to a technically trained technical director, things have never been so dramatic. But this is not just my wishful thinking. Huffman, a 14-year veteran of Google, looks good and has a thick goatee. He seriously thinks about the privacy issues that I have raised about the future digital assistant era. He said, first of all, this may require legislation. He is also discussing the direction of Google's assistants, which is instructive for Google to think about its most important products.
Huffman suggests that in the next five years, Assistant can achieve the foundation of human nature dialogue, but from a computer science point of view, natural dialogue is not the basis at all. He says wake-up phrases like "Hey" or "OK" are "really strange." Huffman wants Assistant to understand your mood and tone and see if you feel depressed. He wants the software to remember a discussion you had with it yesterday so that today you can go on with what you said yesterday.
I asked him about his vision 10 years later. He meditated and said that perhaps physical robots are not only robots that can talk, but also robots that can be moved and done, and will become household products, and digital assistants can also be connected to them.
Our trip to the Ferris wheel was over, and the cockpit slowly descended to the ground. We passed a Las Vegas Monorail parked on track with the word "Hey Google" on the side. The monorail was about to leave the station and became Hey Go.
Duplex's highlight moment
A few days before (Pichai) introduced Assistant to 7000 developers at Google's annual I / O conference in May 2016, I was sitting in his office listening to product presentations. The search giant is preparing Google Home, a smart home voice assistant, to fight Amazon Echo head-on. Obviously, Assistant and Alexa fall into one category. But from the very beginning, Peachai was adamant that Assistant had other functions. "this is Google asking users, 'Hey, what can I do for you?' Think of it as your own Google. "
After a stimulus, the irritating Peachai will eventually ignite the market to the credit of Amazon. "there will be places where we will lead, some places where there will be directions, and then we will be able to do it," he said.
Over the past year, this ambition has become increasingly apparent. In May, Pichai released Duplex, an artificial intelligence that mimics the human language and sounds lifelike and surprising. The software uses modal words such as "uh," um and stops talking as if thinking about what to say next, even if its response is predefined. At present, Duplex is conducting a limited open test phase.
Duplex aims to get Google assistants to book your restaurant and make a haircut reservation. But almost immediately, industry watchers, artificial intelligence ethicists and consumers are starting to worry about whether software can deceive people who talk to them. Google later said it would step up disclosure to make it clear that they were talking to robots.
Huffman said that this is a critical moment for Google. He said, "The strong response is beyond my expectation. This shows us the importance of social issues."
The haze of legislation
One big question is: how can privacy be protected in an age when digital assistants are becoming more intelligent?
This is important, and Silicon Valley is facing more privacy censorship than ever before. Over the past two years, Facebook has been fending off crises, from false propaganda to massive data leaks. In December, Pichai was lured to Congress to answer questions about the Chinese project Dragonfly and to respond to Google's full collection of personal information about users.
If you have to put a device in the living room, have a microphone, and listen to the awakening word "Hey Google", things will become more complicated.
Huffman, who holds a doctorate in computer science, said, "Think about Google Home or Alexa, the first non-personal device ever. They are computing devices that really live in a shared environment... these things are now with us. Living in this room, we are all users. So how is privacy guaranteed?"
Huffman points to what Google has done to set the agenda around artificial intelligence. Last June, Pichai issued a code of ethics on artificial intelligence to guide companies in how to use the technology. Earlier, Google employees protested that the company had signed a contract with the Pentagon to help develop artificial intelligence to analyze the footprint of drones. These guidelines include vowing never to develop artificial intelligence for weapons, creating only "socially beneficial" technologies.
But corporate self-regulation may not be the only way.
"to be honest, I think society will probably end up with new legislation as it understands how these technologies are adapted to the times," Hoffman said. You look at the phone or something; it's been around for a long time. There are many laws on how to use the telephone and what to do with it. For example, you can't eavesdrop on a phone without authorization. "
Huffman also said, "So that rule applies to the technology of that generation, and with artificial intelligence, our society will think about some new rules."
Asked what the legislation might look like, Huffman withdrew his statement. "I don't know if legislation is needed," he said. I'm not the right person to talk about it. " But in any case, it will be up to society, he said.
Huffman does not speculate on the type of regulation, but Jen King, Stanford's head of privacy at the Internet and Social Center, has some insights into legislation. She is currently studying the types of data collected through the Smart Voice Assistant.
Kim said that regulation may look similar to the restrictions introduced by the General Data Protection Regulations (GDPR), a comprehensive European law that came into effect in May 2018. It gives consumers greater control over the personal information they hand over to technology companies. For digital assistants, legislation may mean that if consumers want to delete data, the government can enforce a deletion policy, or the law may require more specific consent for the specific use of the data and ensure that the data is not used "permanently".
Kim believes that we should all pay attention to the default settings of Google and other companies on the device in the future, so as to prevent people from inadvertently giving up the protection of personal information.
For most people, Google is the gateway to the Internet. The assistants further played the role. The company has shaped the user experience, but will do it in a commercially profitable way. "
Competition is intensifying
When Huffman and his team developed features for Google's assistants, Picai was doing the job. Huffman said that CEOs often report software flaws and inefficiencies. For example, when he says "Hey Google", he will tell Huffman if the wrong device is activated. When Pippi tried to set up the software so that the assistant could follow the instructions of the family, he told Huffman that the process was too complicated.
Huffman said with a smile, "I am sometimes shouted loudly, this is right. Picai is really pushing us forward."
Eager to prove that consumers actually use voice assistants, Amazon and Google both did something they could hardly have done last month: they released user data.
Amazon said that Alexa devices sold more than 100 million units, Google is not willing to show weakness, a few days later announced that Assistant sales will be more than 1 billion. However, neither data can tell the truth. For example, because Assistant software is pre-installed, the vast majority of these billion assistive devices (Google won't release specific data) are automatically installed on Android phones. Of course, Google will also install Assistant. on its own Pixel phone
I asked Huffman when that number would be dominated by non-mobile devices. He said he doesn't know, but Google is looking for two great opportunities for Assistant's talent-cars and houses-that could eventually merge.
Google’s battle plan for smart homes is well documented. Google hopes to compete with Amazon and its Echo devices in the smart home assistant market. Google also wants Assistant to work as much as possible with smart TVs from manufacturers such as Samsung, Sony and Hisense. But there is little mention of Google's promotion of the Assistant to provide services for cars. At the International Consumer Electronics Show, Google announced a number of automotive accessories, including Anker Roav's car phone adapter, which can be plugged into a lighter.
This idea extends the reach of Google's assistants to an ever-wider range of areas. This is not easy. In calculating the success rate, Huffman returned to the theme of Las Vegas.
"for most people, virtual assistants, both ours and others, are not very popular," he said. "I can't live without that." So Google still has a lot of work to do. "there is no doubt that this is a bet."