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Google offers a more humble vision of the future

SAN FRANCISCO — There was a time when Google offered a wondrous vision of the future, with driverless cars, augmented reality glasses, unlimited email and photo storage, and predictive texts to complete running sentences.

A more modest Google could be seen on Wednesday as the company kicked off its annual developer conference. The Google of 2022 is more pragmatic and sensible – a bit more like its corporate competitors at Microsoft than a fantasy land for tech enthusiasts.

And it looks like it was designed that way. The bold vision is still there – but it’s a long way off. The professional executives who now run Google are increasingly focused on squeezing the money out of those years of spending on research and development.

The company’s biggest bet in artificial intelligence, at least for now, doesn’t mean science fiction is coming to life. It means more subtle changes to existing products.

“AI enhances our products, making them more useful, accessible and delivering innovative new features for everyone,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said Wednesday.

In a presentation with few wow moments, Google emphasized that its products were “useful”. In fact, Google executives used the words “help,” “help,” or “helpful” more than 50 times during two-hour keynote speeches, including a marketing campaign for its new hardware products with the line, “When it comes to helping, we can help.” nothing but help.”

It introduced a cheaper version of its Pixel smartphone, a smartwatch with a round screen, and a new tablet next year. (“The most useful tablet in the world.”)

The biggest applause came from a new Google Docs feature in which the company’s artificial intelligence algorithms automatically summarize a long document into a single paragraph.

At the same time, it wasn’t immediately clear how some of the other groundbreaking works, such as language models that better understand natural conversation or that can break a task down into logically smaller steps, will eventually lead to the next generation of computers that Google has developed. touted.

Some of the new ideas certainly seem useful. In a demonstration of how Google continues to improve its search technology, the company showed off a feature called “multiple search”, in which a user can snap a photo of a shelf full of chocolates and then find the top-rated bar of nut-free dark chocolate from the photo.

In another example, Google showed how to find an image of a specific dish, such as Korean stir-fried noodles, and then search for nearby restaurants that serve that dish.

Many of those possibilities are made possible by the in-depth technological work Google has done for years using so-called machine learning, image recognition and natural language understanding. It’s a sign of an evolution rather than a revolution for Google and other big technology giants.

Shared technologies such as cloud computing and storage allow many businesses to build digital services more easily and quickly than in the past, but building the underlying infrastructure, such as artificial intelligence language models, is so costly and time-consuming that only the richest companies can do it. invest in it.

As is often the case with Google events, the company didn’t spend a lot of time explaining how it makes money. Google brought up the topic of advertising — which still accounts for 80 percent of the company’s revenue — after an hour of other announcements, focusing on a new feature called My Ad Center. This allows users to request fewer ads from certain brands or highlight topics they would like to see more ads for.

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