Google’s Sundar Pichai lays out his AI roadmap

Pichai during an interview on ‘The Circuit with Emily Chang’ at Google's Bay View campus in Mountain View, California, US, on Wednesday, May 1, 2024. Pichai says artificial intelligence has been a key focus of the Google parent since 2016, back when ChatGPT-maker OpenAI was in its infancy. — Bloomberg

Alphabet Inc chief executive officer Sundar Pichai says artificial intelligence has been a key focus of the Google parent since 2016, back when ChatGPT-maker OpenAI was in its infancy. After all, Google researchers invented the “T” in GPT (as in generative pre-trained transformer). It was a critical innovation that made conversational search using large language models possible.

Somehow though, Google missed the big chatbot moment and has been playing catchup ever since. But Pichai, who sat down for an exclusive interview with The Circuit with Emily Chang, doesn’t seem worried. “We weren’t the first company to do search. We weren’t the first company to do email. We weren’t the first company to build a browser,” he says. “So I view this AI as we are in the earliest possible stages.”

In other words, Pichai is playing the long game, and says Google – which dominates key real estate on the Web – has plenty of time to win.

Google’s effort to reclaim the AI microphone has nevertheless experienced more than a few hiccups. When the company unveiled its Gemini image generator in February, users quickly found weaknesses. Requests for depictions of historical scenes yielded awkward images of Asian Nazis and Black US founding fathers. The company’s effort to ensure its AI systems didn’t perpetuate human biases had apparently backfired.

“We got it wrong,” says Pichai, 51, who contends the incident was a case of good intentions gone awry. Google immediately shut down Gemini’s image generation feature for people, with Pichai ordering a complete rebuild.

“From the ground up we are retraining these models, just to make sure we are also making the product better,” he says. “As soon as it’s ready, we will get it out to people.” He predicted the feature will be re-released in a few weeks.

Still, the future of search – and whether Google will continue to dominate that space – remains unclear. Next week, Pichai is to share his vision for the company’s future at Google I/O, the company’s annual developers conference. But in his interview with The Circuit, he gave us a preview.

Are we nearing the end of those “ten blue links”, like some pundits have predicted, as more conversational results from ChatGPT, Antrhopic’s Claude and other chatbots become more mainstream? Pichai says the best form of search will involve some combination of narrative answers and links to other websites to allow further exploration.

“My son is celiac, so we did a quick question to see whether something is gluten free,” Pichai says. Often a search for one query “leads to more things and then you want to explore more”. Meeting a variety of a searcher’s needs is what makes Google unique, he says.

Getting search right is essential to Google’s future, since ads placed among search results drive Alphabet’s US$300bil (RM1.4 trillion) in annual revenue. “We’ve always found people want choices, including in commercial areas, and that’s a fundamental need,” Pichai explains. “We’ve been experimenting with ads and the data we see show that those fundamental principles will hold true.”

It’s also at the heart of a landmark antitrust lawsuit in which the US Department of Justice accuses Google of abusing its market power to illegally maintain a monopoly over online search and related advertising. A federal judge is expected to rule on the case later this year, and his decision could have far-reaching consequences for Alphabet’s business and beyond.

But if Pichai is worried about Alphabet being broken up, he doesn’t show it. “People are trying to solve problems in their day-to-day lives,” he says. “A lot of our products integrate in a way that provides value for our users.”

The way Google is approaching AI “drives innovation, adds choice in the market”, he says. “That’s how I think about it.”

In the meantime, there are plenty of hurdles Google will need to clear to arrive at its AI future. An increasing amount of AI-generated content is showing up on the Internet, and all search engines will have to figure out how to track, categorise and surface it for users – or not.

For example, last year Google’s algorithms inadvertently made an AI-generated “selfie” its top image for searches of “tank man”, the Chinese man who famously stood before tanks leaving Tiananmen Square in 1989. Google took that image down from its Knowledge Graph and Knowledge Panels, but not before it momentarily gave people a new twist on history.

“The challenge for everyone and the opportunity is: How do you have a notion of what’s objective and real in a world where there’s going to be a lot of synthetic content?” Pichai asks. “I think it’s part of what will define search in the next decade ahead.”

Generative AI is developing so quickly that soon the large language models sponging up information on the internet will run out of content to feed on. That will lead to a situation where models are turning to AI-generated data to train on.

Pichai says however that there are ways in which models being trained on synthetic data could lead to useful research breakthroughs. For instance, Google built up AlphaGo, its AI system that’s been trained to master the Japanese board game Go, in part by letting computer programs play with each other.

“In the field, you call this self play,” Pichai says. “Over time, there’s this notion of can you have models create outputs for other models to learn? These are all research areas now.”

Amid all the strategic challenges Alphabet faces, Pichai is also confronting some skepticism from within the Google ranks. Current and former employees have criticised his leadership style as too cautious and consensus-driven, citing that as a reason Google ceded the lead in AI to ChatGPT, at least initially.

“The reality I think is quite different,” Pichai argues. “I think the larger the company is, you are making fewer consequential decisions, but they need to be clear and you have to point the whole company to that.” He says it’s important to build consensus because “that’s what allows you to have maximum impact behind those decisions”.

Pichai has recently taken several steps to streamline the business to focus more on AI-including layoffs. Alphabet has gone through multiple rounds of cuts in divisions including hardware, engineering and the Google Assistant team.

Last month, Google also fired dozens of engineers who protested the company’s cloud contract with the Israeli government, in what Pichai describes as an unacceptable disruption of daily business.

“It has nothing to do with the matter or the topic they’re discussing. It’s about the conduct of how they went about it,” he says. “I view, particularly in this moment with AI, the opportunity we have ahead of us is immense, but it needs a real focus on our mission.”

Microsoft Corp, with its big investments in AI startups like OpenAI, Inflection and Mistral AI, has emerged as Alphabet’s biggest rival in the most frenzied tech cycle since the dotcom boom. The two are vying to win the AI race, realising the technology holds the key to the future of search – which is essential to the future of AI.

Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella has had some fighting words for Google, too. During the US antitrust trial, Nadella testified that Google’s exclusive, multibillion-dollar deals with the likes of Apple Inc, as the default on smartphones and browsers, have essentially locked out Microsoft’s Bing. Google has been able to make its search engine better because, as the default, it gets more user queries, which in turn lead to better search results, Nadella argued.

Pichai meanwhile says he’s trying to keep focused and not “play to someone else’s dance music”.

“People tend to focus in this micro moment, but it is so small in the context of what’s ahead,” Pichai says. “When I look at the opportunities ahead, across everything we do, I put a lot of chips, at least from my perspective, on Google.” – Bloomberg

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