The keynote speakers at Google I/O mentioned the word “AI” more than a hundred and forty times… but didn’t even talk about integrating AI into Google’s Assistant even once. In fact, Google didn’t showcase ANY upgrades to their Assistant, proving one thing – Sundar Pichai is Google’s least innovative CEO and leader ever. Sure, these are entirely my opinions, but I’ve got hard facts to back them.
Not improving Google Assistant by integrating AI was a MASSIVE missed opportunity
Back in 2018, Google unveiled Duplex, arguably the first ever impressively-human AI voice assistant that could fool people into believing it was real. Like almost all of Google’s pet projects, Duplex was shuttered following the slightest backlash, and Google now doesn’t even mention its existence while talking about Bard. However, we now need Duplex more than ever… With Google’s AI now being powerful enough to write entire emails within Gmail, having a voice-powered AI that’s as powerful as Bard would be a complete game-changer. Imagine being able to talk to the Assistant the way you chat with Bard, Bing Chat, or ChatGPT. Or have a conversation with your smart home to automate routines or save electricity wherever possible, or your wearable/fitness tracker to motivate you, personalize your diet and exercise plan, and be your al-round personal coach.
ChatGPT is the second time Google felt its core business seriously threatened (TikTok was the first)
The past one year seems to have given Google a bunch of rude awakenings. In July last year, Senior VP Prabhakar Raghavan ominously pointed out that youngsters were using Google Maps less and less to explore places. “In our studies, something like almost 40% of young people, when they’re looking for a place for lunch, they don’t go to Google Maps or Search,” Raghavan said. “They go to TikTok or Instagram.” Google got yet another violent jolt when OpenAI rolled out ChatGPT in November last year, with Sundar Pichai calling Google co-founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page back to the company as an ‘existential emergency move’. To make things worse, Microsoft made a major power move by pouring $10 billion into OpenAI and reviving their Bing search engine with new AI-powered chops. Suddenly, Bing managed to hit 100 million daily active users within a matter of weeks. “I want people to know we made them dance,” mentioned Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella, referring to Bing Chat’s David-versus-Goliath moment.
Google’s AI boost at I/O 2023 felt like overcompensation (but not necessarily in a bad way)
It seems like Bing Chat really lit a fire under Google’s behind, giving it that push it needed to really make AI more ubiquitous. A strong opposition is the key to a healthy democracy and a strong competitor is the key to great innovation… although it seems like Google was sitting on innovation all along, given that they’ve had these AI models for a while now. Google unveiled Duplex in 2018, and LaMDA in 2020, but it only took up until now for Google to really push out AI tools to users. These were all small-time garage projects up until ChatGPT pushed Google out of its comfort zone. It’s almost like Google had all the AI advancements, but had no idea where to put them until ChatGPT rolled out. The “Help me write” feature in Gmail looks like it was literally lifted from GhatGPT’s abilities to write great emails, pitches, letters, etc. in a variety of styles and emotions… which sort of implies Google’s at that place where they’re too big to have great ideas anymore.
A look at the Google Graveyard, and how the company treats its most brilliant products
Killed By Google is a website that chronicles all of the products Google axes, from the legacy products like Reader (which really infuriated people) to even Stadia, which was barely a couple of years old, to begin with. The website has listed as many as 285 of Google’s products/services that the company just decided to pull the plug on – some of which were still being heavily used by people (I still use Picasa to this day, no lie). Google operates on what they call a 20% rule, where employees are encouraged to spend 20% of their overall office time on their own side projects. This culture resulted in some of Google’s biggest hits, like Gmail, AdSense, and Google News… but remember Inbox? A weird spin-off of Gmail that promised to be a better version of email? It barely lasted as Google pitched the vision and immediately either got bored or tired of it.
The truth is that Google doesn’t really care about what we users think – altruism isn’t a business. Aside from its core money-making businesses, Search, Gmail, Drive, AdSense, Photos, YouTube, and a few of its cloud/enterprise services, everything is potentially ‘cancellable’. Amazon just recently reported that Alexa was a loss-making business to the tune of $10 billion EACH YEAR, so it’s pretty conceivable that Google resigns its Assistant to a similar fate. However, it’s also possible that some young, ruthless startup can light a fire under Google once again, forcing it to come running back to the battlefield with a new and improved Assistant. After all, not many people know this, but Siri was, in fact, a young independent startup that Apple acquired more than a decade ago.
Google Assistant is still way ahead of Siri, hinting at MAJOR complacency
Speaking of Siri, it’s been over a decade since the announcement of the iPhone 4S… and truth be told, Siri hasn’t majorly improved in those 10 years. It still fumbles in places where Google’s own Assistant shines, but don’t mistake that for praise for Google Assistant. It routinely messes up or misbehaves, but not as much as Siri. In fact, many iPhone users found Siri so useless they devised a way to make ChatGPT their default assistant on the phone, with some even creating a ChatGPT shortcut to efficiently control their smart home. This may be a serious indictment of Siri’s abilities, but’s also one of Google’s own Assistant. It seems like Google needs a worthy competitor to be motivated to innovate. Bing did that with Google Search… and I can’t help but think that Google will only upgrade their assistant when Siri drastically improves, or if there’s a much more capable new competitor on the field.
AI-powered Google Assistant could have really been a part of Sundar’s legacy
What did Tim Cook do for Apple? Well, the Watch and AirPods were launched under him, as was Apple’s push towards building their own silicon chips. Apple became a trillion-dollar company under Cook, and briefly even hit the three trillion dollar mark before settling on 2.71 trillion as of now. Satya Nadella transformed Microsoft by pivoting from Windows to building Azure and other cloud-based services. Microsoft should be like the air you breathe, he would often say. Invisible but important. It’s difficult to really pin-point Sundar’s legacy at Google, considering the company really fumbled on hardware for a bit, building Tensor only after Apple built their M-series chips. Under Pichai, Google canceled Stadia, Chromebooks, Hangouts, Duo, and a bunch of other apps and services. It laid off 6% of its entire workforce in early 2023 (more than 12,000 people), and even though the optics of that looked bad as it is, Sundar Pichai also cut himself a pretty sweet $226 million paycheck in 2022. The point I’m trying to make here is that it’s difficult to think of Pichai as a true innovator because it doesn’t outwardly seem so. At least not two hundred and twenty-six million dollars worth…
However, things could have been different. Instead of Google playing catch-up to OpenAI and other LLMs, Sundar could have doubled down by outdoing them. A conversational AI like Duplex could have really made I/O 2023 much more magical. Sure, you can still talk to Google’s Assistant, but you can’t get it to work across services and data sets the way you can with Bard. For now, Bard is still heavily text-input-based, and one can just hope that there will be some changes in the coming months and years. Until then, at least we’ve got Google’s MusicLM to keep us distracted…