One of the the most unusual demos at Google’s annual I/O conference last week was of a custom-built automatic cocktail maker powered by the company’s artificial intelligence system, Google Assistant.
Event attendees could order up a mango mixer, say, by just talking to the drink dispenser. The machine, which some developers hacked together to show how Google’s AI can be added to just about any gadget, would quickly serve up a cocktail with just the right ingredients drawn from tubes on its top.
You’re already familiar with using Google’s services on your phone or computer. Google wants to be in many more places than those, and it’s planning on using AI to get there.
As Google officials laid out at last week’s conference, the company envisions a future where its AI is inside everything from dish washers to cars. It helps manage your digital photos. And yes, it even could help mix drinks.
The search giant argued this development will be great for consumers. By injecting a little of its smarts into the stuff you use every day, the company will be improving lives.
But the company has other reasons for pursuing its vision. Google and other companies see AI as the next major computing breakthrough after smartphones. The payoff for the company that dominates AI could be huge. (Google doesn’t know how to make money off AI yet, but that’s a problem for another day.)
But the aggressive AI push by Google and its rivals begs the question: Do we really need Google (or Alexa or Siri or whatever else) inside of everything?
I don’t think so.
Nothing we’ve seen from Google or its competitors to date has shown that voice commands and AI are easier or faster to use than smartphone apps, computer programs or web apps. AI may help extend Google and others’ reach beyond phones, but it will be a very, very long time before anything comes along that’s capable enough to replace an app-empowered smartphone as your primary computing device.
Unfortunately, a lot of what we’re seeing today with AI and voice control is trying to do just that.
During Google’s keynote, one of the demos showed how Panera Bread built an app on top of Google Assistant that allows a customer to order by just talking to it. The demonstrator claimed it was just like ordering at the counter with another human at the store.
It was an impressive feat for a digital assistant. But you could place an order much easier by just tapping on Panera’s smartphone app or visiting its web site. You shouldn’t have to go through a lengthy verbal back-and-forth with a faceless virtual assistant just to get the Panera sandwich you want.
As tech analyst Ben Thompson put it:
NO ONE WANTS TO TALK TO THEIR PHONE FOR 60 SECONDS INSTEAD OF TAPPING FOR 10
— Ben Thompson (@benthompson) May 17, 2017
I’ve experienced similar frustrations using voice assistants like Alexa to order an Uber or control smart lights. While they technically work, they’re not easier or faster than just using a smartphone app.
The dubiousness of Google’s vision seems even more clear when it comes to AI being embedded into everyday devices like thermostats, as we saw a few weeks ago when Ecobee announced thermostat with Alexa inside. I can’t think of a single scenario where I’d rather talk to a virtual assistant in my thermostat than just use an app on my smartphone.
Voice-powered AI can be useful for simple web searches; straightforward queries, like “What’s the weather?”; and basic commands, like “Play the new Katy Perry song. But they’re poorly suited for just about everything else you’d want to do. Apple’s marketing boss Phil Schiller put it pretty well a few weeks ago in an interview with NDTV when he asked about the rise of digital assistants in devices like the Amazon Echo.
“Voice assistants are incredibly powerful, their intelligence is going to grow, they’re gonna do more for us, but the role of the screen is gonna remain very important to all of this,” he said.
In other words, if your goal is to kill the screen, you’ve blown it.
All of the major tech companies are investing in AI in the belief that it will replace the smartphone as the dominant platform in tech. What none of them seem to realise is that AI won’t replace the smartphone but improve it. It won’t kill the category; it will just make it more useful.
Google is the company perhaps least in touch with this reality. At its event last week, it went so far as to claim it’s shifting from a “mobile first” company to an “AI first” one. As exciting as Google’s (and Amazon’s and Microsoft’s and Apple’s) advancements in AI have been, they still don’t come close to its ambition.
The truth is we’re going to be stuck with smartphones for a very long time — think decades, not years. And while a Google Assistant-powered cocktail mixer makes for a cool demonstration, it goes to show that voice-powered AI these days is more entertaining than practical.
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