Google's big event today was all about mobile, but Google CEO Sundar Pichai made a point of starting with a new mantra: Google isn't a mobile-first company, but "AI-first."
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For Google, that means a convergence of machine learning, the Google Knowledge Graph, voice and image recognition natural language processing (NLP), and conversational artificial intelligence all packaged into Google Assistant. Built into Google's newly announced Pixel smartphones and Google Home device as well as Google Allo, Assistant is integrated across Google apps and platforms. Soon it will also be available to businesses and developers through Actions on Google and the Embedded Google Assistant SDK.
"We envision the Assistant as a two-way conversation; a natural dialogue between our users and Google to help them get things done in the real world," said Pichai. "Our goal is to build a personal Google for each and every user."
Contextualizing that experience means getting partners deeply involved. It's about turning AI into a personal help desk agent for whatever app, brand, or service the user is interacting with. Coming in December, Actions on Google is an open developer platform giving businesses the ability to create custom actions for Google Assistant.
Actions on Google will let partnered apps and brands complete tasks for users through the Google Assistant using two different kinds of actions: direct and conversation.
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Direct actions are designed for simple tasks like communication, sending a home automation or specific app command, like turning off the lights or playing a Spotify playlist, or requesting information as with traditional digital assistants.
Conversation Actions involve a more complex back-and-forth with a product or service, like having Google Assistant book an Uber for you with a few questions and answers.
"The Google Assistant will be our next thriving open ecosystem," said Scott Huffman, Engineering Director at Google. "Right out of the gate, the assistant will be able to find information about local businesses, surface great content from YouTube creators, and surface Web content from publishers.
"We want to everyone from developers to local businesses to create these types of conversations," added Huffman. "Partners will be able to tell us what kind of requests they can handle, from ordering groceries to playing a game, and then build out their conversational experiences."
Google already offers open SDKs for developers to build conversational AI experiences through API.AI, but plans to scale the capabilities to exclusively voice- and text-based experiences. Finally, Google plans to release an Embedded Google Assistant SDK in 2017 to integrate Google Assistant into any kind of device, from consumer hardware to a Raspberry Pi.
What Google is saying and doing around AI isn't anything groundbreaking. In fact, all the other big tech players are doing the same thing. Personal assistants from Siri and Alexa to Cortana and Watson are all chasing the same seamless combination of machine learning and natural language processing, and we're also beginning to see smaller competitors like Scarlet and Viv emerge in the space.
On the conversational AI side, Facebook and Microsoft are already investing heavily in partnered chat bot ecosystems to interact with brands and buy products and services within the messaging experience. Alexa has a broad partner ecosystem and developer program. Microsoft and Google also share the similar philosophy of integrating their assistants across their platforms while making a range of open-source AI tools available for developers.
Google's innovation in AI across deep learning, machine learning, and neural networks is without question. From DeepMind and AlphaGo to its open-source TensorFlow machine learning framework, the company has been investing in AI for a long time with incredible results.
While its Google Now assistant has been part of Android for a while, the company hasn't quite been able to transition its breakthroughs in AI research to the kind of consumer products and partner ecosystem seen from its competitors. This December, we'll see if Actions on Google will help the company to finally take that leap.