Google’s CEO sums up his AI vision: “Hi. How can I help?”

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imagesSundar Pichai, who takes the I/O stage for the first time since becoming CEO in October, says he’s on a “journey” from mobile to AI. Good thing he has an assistant.From the windows lining the wall of Sundar Pichai’s light-filled office in the Googleplex in Mountain View, California, you can see the twin spires of Shoreline Amphitheatre, just a short walk away.The outdoor arena is where Pichai is hosting, for his first time as Google’s CEO, over 2,000 Googlers and 7,000 developers at the company’s I/O conference. After holding the confab inside a San Francisco convention center for the past seven years, Pichai wanted to bring the gathering back to Google’s backyard on I/O’s 10th anniversary. He’s keen to celebrate the community around the company’s Android software, Chrome browser and search engine, and introduce the next chapter of Google’s vision for artificial intelligence and virtual reality.But right now, Pichai is peeved.

After a week of getting a first look at the products being unveiled at I/O, which starts Wednesday, we couldn’t help but notice a lot of new takes on existing products. There’s a messaging app (which suggests comparisons to Facebook Messenger), a voice-activated speaker and smart home control hub (sort of like Amazon’s Echo), a video chat app (think Apple’s Facetime) and a new hardware and software system for VR built around a smartphone (shades of Samsung Gear VR).

To be sure, Google’s executives described interesting new ideas and technologies behind each product. But there’s no entirely new product that someone else hasn’t done already.

The famously mild-mannered Pichai — his Businessweek cover in 2014 was captioned “Google’s Soft Power” — bristles at the idea Google is somehow “following” its tech brethren. He takes a few minutes to tamp down his annoyance, and then calmly explains the “journey” he started taking Google on since becoming CEO of the most important division of parent company Alphabet.

“It’s important to understand we weren’t the first company in search,” says Pichai, 43, tall and wiry, whose salt-and-pepper beard adds a touch of gravitas to his boyish smile. “Larry and Sergey did search because they saw a chance to do something different.”

It was the same for email, online maps and Web browsers. The different take worked, with Gmail, Google Maps and Chrome each boasting a billion users. “There are areas where we will be ahead, and there will be areas where someone points a way and we do it,” Pichai says, crediting the Amazon Echo for generating interest in smart home hubs. “That’s how it works.”

But Google isn’t just creating a slew of new products. It’s how they’ll riff off each other that gets Pichai animated during our hour-long conversation. Each new thing — from the Allo chat app to a smart home speaker code-named Chirp — boasts artificial intelligence and machine learning that allows it to serve as a playground for Pichai’s new “Google assistant.”

It’s as if Google is transferring its very essence from that sparse white homepage into every piece of tech you own (your phone, car, smartwatch) and online service you use. Unlike today’s search box, this assistant will learn about you from your behavior. It will know you’re a vegetarian, so won’t recommend steakhouses for dinner. It will understand context: If you’ve just bought Golden State Warriors tickets, the next time you mention Curry, it will know you’re talking about Steph and not Thai curry.

All that, says Pichai, signals profound changes in the way we use information.

Think of it this way: For pretty much the entire time people have been online, the Internet has been a tool, like a hammer or a library card. You use them when you need them. But a hammer will never automatically build you a house — let alone one with a Craftsman exterior because you’ve been reading up on early 20th century architecture. Google wants to be that overachieving hammer.

“It’s Google asking users, ‘Hi. How can I help?’” Pichai says. “Think of it as building your own individual Google.”

The idea of a digital assistant isn’t new. Apple teased the world with an online concierge named “Phil” almost three decades ago as part of its vision for a “Knowledge Navigator. ” Today, Apple has Siri, Microsoft has Cortana and Amazon has Alexa. And in the movies, Tony Stark has Jarvis.

Google has been doing this for years, too.

Google Now pops things up on your phone when the service thinks they’re relevant, thanks in part to Google’s Knowledge Graph, which understands a billion entities — people, places and things — and the relationships among them. Pichai now wants that know-how in even more places. He also thinks Google has the competition beat because of its heritage as a search company that’s been “organizing the world’s information.”

“There is no better engine of answering any question that you have,” says Rishi Chandra, vice president of product management for Google’s line of devices for the living room, including the Chromecast audio and video streaming stick. “We fundamentally believe that.”

So does the rest of the world, which queries Google more than a trillion times a year. That’s about 3 billion searches a day. A decade ago, Google translated two languages. Today, it’s talking to folks in over 100 languages and translating more than 140 billion words every day.

Here to serve
While Pichai has been talking up AI and machine learning for a while, I/O 2016 is Google’s first showcase for products with the assistant baked into their DNA.

Chirp, the smart home speaker now officially called Google Home, will likely get outsized attention. Unlike Amazon’s Echo, Google Home’s physical design can be customized so it blends in with your furniture. Its interchangeable parts means you can pick, say, different colored fabrics if you want it in your bedroom or metallic finishes if it’s going to live in your kitchen.

You’ll be able to ask it anything using the trigger words, “OK Google,” Pichai explains. One of the phones in his office, hearing him say that phrase, dings and leaps into action. But the company may add more code words in the future, like “Hey Google.” (In the Google app on Android devices in the US, 20 percent of searches are now by voice, he adds.)

Google Home lets you request anything you’d type into the search box. It will also tell you if your flight’s delayed, your package has arrived and what’s next on your calendar. It can dim your lights, put on a movie, and work with other gadgets, like Google’s $35 Chromecast. That means you can sync up music to speakers in different rooms or queue up “Broad City” on your TV.

It will also understand different accents as well as commands from kids, whose precocious questions aren’t so easy to follow. “I can’t train my kid to talk to a device,” says Chandra, laughing. “My kids are going to say what they want to say. It really has to feel like a natural, two-way conversation.”

And Google Home will offer the same privacy preferences people already have with old-fashioned Google Web search. “It’s all the same rules, privacy and control,” says Scott Huffman, Google’s vice president of engineering for search. So you can do things like clear your search history.

Google’s parent company, Alphabet, has another unit that’s building smart home products. Nest, which was acquired in 2014 for $3 billion, makes Web-connected thermostats, smoke detectors and security cameras under the guidance of former Apple iPod chief, Tony Fadell. So it begs the question why Google Home, which is compatible with Nest’s products, isn’t made by Nest.

The reason, Pichai says, is because Google is interested in bringing computing to several distinct contexts. “Your phone, your wearables, your car, and your home,” he says. Google Home is more about that than anything else.

Google’s big challenge with Home isn’t the tech, says Gartner analyst Brian Blau. It’s getting the device on customers’ radars. One reason for the Amazon Echo’s success is the fact that Amazon can prominently promote the $179 smart speaker on its site. And when people visit Amazon’s homepage, they’re already jonesing to spend.

“You have your pocketbook out when you go there,” Blau says. Google just doesn’t have that captive audience when it comes to selling devices.

Allo there!
The messaging app, Allo, also features AI smarts. It joins the next-gen chat service scrum that’s already being fought by Facebook Messenger, Snapchat and Kik.

When you’re chatting with a friend on Allo — it culls your phone’s contacts list so you have people to talk to — the software automatically recommends “Smart Replies.” If a friend asks you to dinner, one of Allo’s suggested responses is “What time?” The more you use Allo, the more Smart Replies will start to sound like you. So if you have a favorite emoji, you can bet it will start to show up for you.

Like Facebook, which has a chatbot assistant it’s been testing called M, Google’s virtual helper will be front and center in Allo. There are a few key differences. Facebook’s M, which is being tested with “a few thousand” people in California right now, is overseen by a team of human workers who step in if a task is too complicated for the bot, like ordering food from a restaurant without an online ordering system. The assistant in Allo is entirely machine operated and is open to everyone.

Pichai says these AI steps are just the first in a long process because the computing challenges are so difficult. There are privacy concerns that need to be balanced, and questions answered about the cultural and societal impact of all this mind-reading tech.

Google is showing more future vision at this year’s I/O than it has before because it wants developers and users to understand what it aims to deliver — and to get them to buy into its ecosystem.

“Just like we’ve built search for a while, this is something we’re looking at building for many years,” Pichai says. “It’s a broad journey.”

What would Sundar do?
Alphabet’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin continue to show confidence in Pichai’s leadership. Last month, the duo let him write the company’s annual founders’ letter, marking the first time in Google’s 17-year history that someone other than Brin or Page, who was CEO before Pichai, has penned it.

Right outside of Pichai’s fishbowl office, a T-shirt hangs on the back of a chair that conjures up Apple’s visionary co-founder Steve Jobs. The shirt has a drawing of Pichai soulfully looking off in the distance, shielding his eyes, presumably, from the sun’s rays. It says “WWSD?” for “What would Sundar do?”

While he’s been considered Page’s heir apparent for years, Pichai doesn’t remember the exact moment when he knew he’d take over. There wasn’t a conversation where Page handed him the proverbial keys to the kingdom, he jokes. “It only happens like that in movies.”

Instead, his rise has been gradual. Born in Chennai, India, Pichai attended the Indian Institute of Technology Kharagpur before earning master’s degrees from Stanford and Wharton. He first interviewed for Google on April 1, 2004 — the same day it launched Gmail, which Pichai thought was an April Fools’ joke.

He served as a product manager in charge of the browser search bar before initiating development of Chrome. His successes started to stack up and, in 2013, he took over Android from its dynamic but polarizing founder, Andy Rubin. He got oversight of the rest of Google’s Web products two years later, and was tapped as CEO last year.

His team credits his intimate knowledge of Google’s products as a key reason he’s been able to make formerly siloed projects work together. “He deeply understands platforms,” says Hiroshi Lockheimer, who took over as Android chief. “He’s always been the leader that I’ve looked to get guidance from.”

Outside of Pichai’s office, a complex art installation features twinkling lights overhead, like an artist’s interpretation of neurons speeding around the brain. It kind of looks like a starfield. We ask Pichai to pose for a portrait beneath it. The setting seems fitting because, with Page and Brin off contemplating the future of Alphabet, Pichai is now Google’s north star.

AI-first
Pichai now faces attacks on multiple fronts. Regulators in the European Union allege that Google abuses its dominance to keep competitors down. When asked about it, Google points to a blog post from its general counsel, Kent Walker, who wrote that Google “takes these concerns seriously,” but also believes its model helps phone makers keep costs low.

And Google’s rivals are circling. Regina Dugan, the former DARPA chief who led Google’s Advanced Technology and Projects (ATAP), left the company in April to lead a similar effort building experimental hardware for Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg.

Pichai insists ATAP is alive and thriving. All the group’s projects continue, including Ara, a fan favorite that lets people build smartphones from components that snap together like Legos. ATAP is hosting a session at I/O this week to share other news.

As he deals with those external forces, Pichai is also focused on shifting Google’s journey from “mobile-first to AI-first.” That will mean changing the very soul of the operation: Google.com.

Google’s homepage, the cash cow that accounts for the majority of Alphabet’s $74 billion in sales, isn’t going anywhere, at least anytime soon. But expect Google.com to get more personalized. One early sign of change: After Amit Singhal, Google’s longtime search chief, retired in February, John Giannandrea, the company’s AI boss, took over.

And consider this: When you Google “Sundar Pichai,” the results show his Wikipedia entry, his Twitter feed (@sundarpichai) and then recent news about him. We ask him stuff you wouldn’t get at first glance in a standard Google search.

  • His favorite emoji: the simple, classic smiley face.
  • He’s Team Hard ‘G’ in the great GIF pronunciation debate.
  • He thinks the most impactful Alphabet moon shot is the self-driving car project.
  • Nuclear fusion is the most fascinating technology Google isn’t working on. (We double-checked: Google isn’t working on nuclear fusion, but he’s open to helping others who are by offering things like cloud-based computational services.)
  • He no longer memorizes phone numbers, as he did when he was a kid, because they’re stored in the many (he doesn’t know the exact number) phones he uses at any given time.

If the journey goes as planned and the assistant is really as “assistive” (Pichai’s word) as Google wants it to be, you could find answers like that in the not-too-distant future. What would a “Sundar Pichai” Google search look like in his AI-first world?

Pichai flashes his boyish grin. “It would depend on who’s searching.”

 

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