AI AI AI/O 2023

As promised, a few thoughts about Google’s I/O announcements. But first, I want to offer congratulations to the Kraken.

Making the playoffs in their second season. Getting through the first round, pushing the second round to seven games–and coming within inches of forcing overtime in that seventh game. Nice job, gang, nice job. Not the outcome we all wanted, of course, but on the up-side, it gives something to build on next year. Thank you for the excitement.

Now, Google. AI is, of course, the flavor of the month, and Google has been binging on it. As many commentators have pointed out, “AI” appeared in every product announcement–nearly every sentence. Oddly, as someone (my apologies to them for forgetting who it was) the only product conspicuously missing is the one that would seem the natural spot for an AI touch-up: Google Assistant. I can’t imagine GA is going to vanish, but the lack of mention at I/O does make one wonder if its days as a separate product are limited.

Anyway, the first notable announcements were “Help Me Write” in Gmail (and later, in Google Docs) and the “Magic Editor” in the Camera app (and possibly as a standalone, presumably web-based, application).

Last year’s “Magic Eraser” worked well, within limits, so adding additional tools to help with photo editing seems the logical next step. Once you’ve selected an object, why limit yourself to deleting it? Move it around, change colors (the enhanced version of the “camouflage” function we already had), resize it–all logical. Sure, you’re rewriting history, but your memory does that anyway.

Similarly, given that Gmail already has suggested responses and autocorrect/as-you-write predictions, “Help Me Write” isn’t exactly a major cognitive stretch. Feed your AI a few words to suggest where you want to go, and watch it throw something together for you. How long before it starts arguing with you when you make changes to its “suggestions”? Think I’m kidding? Have you ever had your GPS get ticked off at you when you don’t follow its preferred route?

Those last couple of paragraphs sound pretty negative. In all seriousness, I think both tools could be useful, used correctly. But how many people are going to use them to improve what they create–and how many are going to hand the controls over to them entirely? (Case in point: if your phone is set to use one of the features to automatically pick the “best” picture–HDR, “Top Shot”, and so on–how often do you overrule it, or even look at the alternatives it rejected?)

Then there’s that “AI Prompts” feature for Google Docs. I can sort of see the utility of something that sees you’re stuck and pops up with a helpful suggestion or two. But it seems like that’s going to be much too easily abused. First it suggests something to get you unstuck, then it offers to write something to match the suggestion, and the next thing you know, it’s written your whole term paper/research article/novel. And, frankly, how is it going to know you’re stuck? Half the time when I’m not typing, it’s because I’m staring at the ceiling trying to find just the right word to come next and the other half I’ve gone to the bathroom/down to the kitchen for some tea/otherwise away from the computer. Either way, having that suggestion pop up isn’t likely to help much. Hopefully the feature can be turned off.

Naturally, AI is going to fuel Google’s traditional core business: search. It will, we’re told, allow for more complex searches that currently would require multiple searches and a manual combination of the results. The example we got was asking which vacation destination would be better for a family with kids and a dog; currently you would need to ask about the destinations independently, and figure out their individual kid- and dog-friendliness. It should also allow for chaining searches together implicitly. After you finish asking about the vacation destinations, if you then search for flights, Google might prefill the destination search based on the vacation query, and maybe even limit the search to airlines that allow pets and trim out the flights that require transfers. All automAtIcally.

That’s another one that sounds nice, raises concerns. How clear will it be what the source of the search results is. Will state or local tourist boards try to bias results to favor their regions as vacation destinations. (Yes, that’s a rhetorical question.) How long will Google retain search information? Some questions have a much longer shelf life than others. Will I have to tell the AI I don’t care about the trip I took last summer, now that it’s Christmas time? Or remind it about the search I did last year on alternative energy sources so it knows to prioritize anything new?

Then, of course, there’s that whole business about AI-generated art. Google says anything created by their AI will have metadata that reveals that fact. That’s nice, but metadata is easy to remove or alter. Heck, I do it on almost every picture I post to the blog: I strip out the GPS coordinates, the camera details, and pretty much everything else, and I add a copyright statement. Takes all of five seconds with a command line tool. If I can do that much, image what someone who knows what they’re doing could accomplish!

They’re also planning an “About This Image” feature that will, among other things, tell you where else a picture has appeared. That’s nice. But I have to say, I’ve never been very impressed with Google’s picture search functionality–TinEye works much better, in my opinion. And if Google’s

AI generated images will have metadata that clearly says so. So? Stripping metadata is easy. And the “About this image” bit to show where the image has appeared is iffy–especially if it relies on metadata. Google’s reverse image search has never worked especially well for me. And if the feature relies on metadata, well, see the previous paragraph.

Other items: Why does everyone assume I’m happy to let them use my Bluetooth, battery, and cellular data to help find other people’s lost keys? Just because Apple is doing it doesn’t mean Google has to. Yet, here we are.

Emoji wallpapers? Who the hell asked for this?

The cinematic wallpapers are less annoying, but does it really improve your life to have the picture on your desktop/home page appear in simulated 3D?

Then, of course, there’s the hardware. There weren’t any unleaked surprises, but just to touch the high and low points.

The Pixel 7a is, as best I can tell, essentially a Pixel 6 with a few upgrades–which does not include the camera, which is for many people a major selling point. Why would you get a 7a for roughly the same price as a 6?

The Pixel Tablet. Did we really need another device with an 11 inch screen? That’s my major complaint about iPads: the screen looks nice, but it sucks when it comes to portability. It won’t fit in a pocket, even a large jacket pocket. For that matter, tablets in the 10+ inch range weigh too darn much for kicking back in bed and vegging out. Google’s trying for the value-add by including the base with its (presumably) decent speakers, charger, and the tablet’s Hub mode. So now you have a device that can sit on a table and act as a TV (but much smaller), photo frame, and smart controller for your home automation gadgets. How much of an improvement over the current Google Home experience does that really amount to?

The only device I actually liked the sound of is the Pixel Fold. It’s a phone when you need one (like, say, to make a call, or just shove it in a pocket), but it unfolds into a 7.6 inch tablet. As I said Google I/O 2016, “I strongly feel that seven inches is exactly the right size for a light entertainment device–something that fits into the space between a phone you can hold to your ear and a TV you watch from across the room. I’m deeply disappointed to learn that Google apparently doesn’t see that as a viable niche.” I’m delighted that it only took Google seven years to come to the right conclusion.

They hyped the “use it as its own tripod” feature, which amuses me highly, considering that Samsung got there first. But regardless of who invented it, it’s a useful tool, especially since it lets you use the high quality “rear” camera for selfies.

The only down side I see is the price. $1800? Ouch. For that price, you could superglue three Pixel 7a phones together with hinges from your local hardware store, and have a truly humongous folding phone. Still, it’s the same price as Samsung’s latest foldable phone–and we’re already seeing discounts. Google’s own Fi store is offering $700 off (over two years), which puts it in the same ballpark as an iPhone 14 or Samsung S23. Or if you trade in the right phone, they’ll knock off a full thousand bucks over the same two years.