Google’s latest battle with its tech rivals in the field of AI is not yet quite as ferocious as the war for the “iron throne” in HBO’s hit series Game of Thrones, said CEO Sundar Pichai, insisting: “We are not trying to kill each other”.
Instead, he likened it to a battle for the NBA Championship, while diplomatically describing his competitors as “phenomenal companies”, during a talk at the Code Conference 2016 last week.
Well, however he wants to describe it, something big is going down in what was, arguably, once Google’s own patch.
And if Pichai does have designs to emerge as the King of AI, or at the very least MVP (NBA’s Most Valuable Player), he certainly laid down the gauntlet early.
While opening up on how the company plans to develop machine intelligence, he also proclaimed Google to be “better” than Apple, which has Siri, Microsoft’s Cortana, Facebook’s intelligent machine learning and Amazon’s Alexa, quite simply because “we have been doing it longer”.
“We see AI as an inflection point, and we saw it internally three or four years ago,” he said. “Today, if I look at our scale and benchmarks against any quality metrics, we feel we are ahead, but of course it’s still early days for all of us.”
So, the battle lines are well and truly drawn, and while AI has been talked about for years, it appears that the time has come for the biggest companies to step up to the plate.
At the very same conference, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, went even further than Pichai in talking up AI, stating how hard it was to “overstate how big of an impact this will have on society in the next 20 years”, while Microsoft founder Bill Gates described it as the “holy grail”.
AI is here
Indeed, research firm IDC suggests a similar sort of thing, forecasting the market will grow a mammoth $40 billion in a matter of four years by 2020, with 60 per cent of AI applications running from Amazon, IBM, Google and Microsoft.
In another telling metric, a blog by venture capital (VC) database CBInsights suggests that more than 60 per cent of AI companies in the last three years had VC backing, while 20 private companies working on AI have been acquired (four in 2016) by a corporation – including tech giants like Google, Amazon, Apple, IBM, Yahoo, Facebook and Intel.
Google alone has made five of these so far, including deep learning start-up DNNResearch and British-based DeepMind Technologies (which made history after the technology beat the world champion of Chinese board game Go, the first time a computer program beat a top Go champion).
Pichai eluded to the idea that, as the smartphone market continues to mature, the AI battle will last for the next ten years, and the company is now seemingly preparing for a more mainstream approach.
And it appears that Facebook is thinking along the same lines. It last week unveiled DeepText, an AI fuelled platform that “understands the various ways text is used in Facebook”, with near human accuracy.
The tool can read through several thousand posts per second, in more than 20 languages, claims the company, and is initially being tested on its Messenger platform.
If you (I did too) are having trouble envisioning what this is all about, here’s an example from Facebook’s blog.
It will be able to tell the difference between what is meant by a person who wrote they “just came out of a taxi” and “I need a ride”. This can potentially help advertisers target users with more relevance, such as cab companies in this case.
Sounds clever, and it’s something the company is beginning to test now on some Facebook experiences.
Machines need to talk to us
With its own development, Google’s Pichai too touched on how machines should become smarter to understand what we are saying, and establish a “two way dialogue” with its user.
This led to questions about Google Now, its own voice assistant platform, which arguably has a lower profile than rival voice assistants like Siri and Cortana.
Not to be out done, he eluded to the fact that Google’s thinking is just bigger and better than his rivals.
“We want this to evolve over time and grow it, and there are many ways to approach it. We don’t want to constrain ourselves in any way,” he hit back.
Pichai used this opportunity to open up on how the company is working on natural language processing to ensure a two way dialogue, between person and machine.
“We are looking at how this should respond to different people, and one personality doesn’t work in all those cases. We want this to be user centric. Intelligent assisting should have a conversational understanding, and that’s a hard thing to do, so we have a long way to go.”
High on the agenda for the company now is Google Home, a voice activated product that allows users to have conversations with its AI-powered Google Assistance, and works as a kind of virtual butler.
Expected by the end of the year, it is widely tipped to rival Amazon’s Echo, which is gaining popularity across the US.
So, Pichai and Bezos have had their say. I highly doubt it will be much longer before the somewhat maligned, and rather stagnant, Siri will again make its voice heard, as the battle for the AI throne looks set for the long haul.
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