There’s this pattern I have noticed about Google events of late. Soon after a Google event, a lot of excitement builds up around Google’s AI capabilities, and people start to wonder about how Google’s formidable AI capabilities will affect its competition.
And, to be sure, Google’s AI capabilities are indeed formidable. Just as an example, they recently launched Google Allo with AI capabilities in the form of ‘Google Assistant, preview edition’. (Anyone know what that ‘preview edition’ bit refers to? What happened to the good old days of everything by Google being in beta for a century or so?)
At its I/O conference earlier this year in March, Google did a great job of showing off its AI capabilities, where the Google Assistant was prominently featured. Equally impressive was Google Home, Google’s response to Amazon’s Alexa.
That show of AI strength caused Marco Arment to declare that ‘If Google’s right about AI, that’s a problem for Apple.’
Others weighed in too. Craig Mod declared:
When the interface becomes invisible and data based, Apple dies: https://t.co/bflfdsBqTw
— A Walking Man (@craigmod) May 22, 2016
I’m recalling all these discussions not because I’m inclined to take any sides, but simply to point out that the field of AI is highly exciting, and in particular AI bots that respond to voice are incredibly important for platform owners such as Apple and Google. I’m not sure I agree with Craig Mod’s assertion though—after all, no matter how smart that AI bot is, it’s going to need a screen to play a movie for me, or to show me my photo albums. So ‘Apple dies’ may be hyperbole, but Apple—or anyone who fails to build tech AI capabilities— is likely to move down the value chain in the near future.
Two important developments this week serve to highlight even further how critical AI intelligence is for the big tech companies.
The first of these is Google’s Hardware event Pixel. Highlighting Google’s AI prowess in terms of speech synthesis, image recognition, and translation, Sunder Pichai practically made a mission statement: “It’s clear to me that we’re heading from a mobile first to an AI first world.” Google showed off a new line of phones, a VR headset, and of course, Google Home, a wireless speaker powered by Google Assistant that will respond to voice commands and carry out tasks much like Amazon Echo.
The second development is Samsung’s acquisition of Viv. Viv was created by the three guys—Dag Kittlaus, Adam Cheyer and Chris Brigham—who originally built Siri, which was acquired by Apple in 2010. The three of them left Apple over the years post the Siri acquisition, and got together again to build an AI assistant even more powerful than Siri. Dag wrote about the potential to do far more than Siri in 2012, and followed up with a 2014 article which was even more specific about how much more one could do beyond Siri, essentially outlining the vision for Viv.
It’s not hard to understand why Samsung would be interested in acquiring Viv. Of all the companies selling smartphones—or any kind of phones, for that matter—Samsung is the only one making any noteworthy profits apart from Apple. All other big platform players—Apple, Microsoft, and Google—have their own voice powered AI assistants. Amazon’s AI Assistant, Alexa, resides in its Echo speakers and helps you shop and check the weather, among other things.
It makes sense for Samsung to get into the fray, and to prepare for a future where people will not bother to launch browsers to conduct a search, or even bother to type out a message, when they can simply dictate it to an intelligent assistant.
I’m keenly interested in seeing how this battle for turf between these AI assistants plays out. Google certainly has a head start not just because they have immense amounts of data to work with, but also because they have been steadily building out their capabilities on this front over the past few years. But I rather suspect that this battle will not be fought on specs and feature comparisons alone. The interface that is powered by voice is far more personal–you are talking to a machine, that is trying its best to be human and intelligent. A key factor for any of these AI assistants will be the emotional connect–the personality of AI.
All of these bots will fight it out over the next few years to become faster, more efficient, more useful, and compete to have the highest number of features. But once they all get to a certain minimum level of efficiency and utility, I suspect the relationship they offer will become the critical factor for their success.