Google Gives Artificial Intelligence More Power in its Products

By Jack Nicas Features Dow Jones Newswires

Google doubled down on its bet on artificial intelligence with new features and availability for its virtual assistant and smart speaker at its annual software-developers conference, part of a scramble with other tech giants to dominate the next wave of consumer technology.

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The new uses unveiled Wednesday touch on such popular Google functions as photos, email and mobile payments. They build on two products -- Google Assistant and Google Home -- announced at last year's conference.

Google said at this year's conference it would soon enable its Google Assistant to complete transactions, an opening for the service to make money, and to provide information about objects in the real world that are in view of a smartphone's camera. The Assistant, Google's competitor of Apple Inc.'s Siri and Amazon.com Inc.'s Alexa virtual assistants, will also soon be available via an app on iPhones -- following a similar move by Amazon.

Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., also said it would soon add phone-call capabilities to its Google Home smart speakers. Users can call any phone number in the U.S. or Canada with the service, an advantage over a similar service recently announced by Amazon for its Echo speaker that can only call other devices, as well as phones that have downloaded the associated app.

Google is in a race with rivals including Amazon, Apple and Microsoft Corp. to get its AI-enabled devices into more homes and cars. In some areas, Google is already playing catch-up. Google Home trails Amazon.com Inc.'s Echo by a wide margin. Market research firm eMarketer estimated in May that Echo controls 70% of the smart-speaker market versus 24% for Google Home.

The pie is growing, though. EMarketer forecasts 35.6 million people in the U.S. will use a smart speaker this year, up 129% from 2016.

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The use of virtual assistants, predominantly on smartphones, is far higher. EMarketer forecasts a 23% increase this year in the number of U.S. virtual-assistant users to 60.5 million, or about 27.5% of U.S. smartphone users. The market share of the various virtual assistants -- the Google Assistant, Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Microsoft's Cortana -- is unclear.

Google showed its enormous reach with some new statistics Wednesday, including there are now 2 billion active devices running its Android software, up from 1.4 billion in late 2015. Google also suggested it could soon add to its list of seven products that have more than 1 billion monthly users, including search, Gmail and Chrome, its web browser. Google said it has 800 million monthly users of its Google Drive online-storage service and 500 million of its Google Photos app.

One new function Google announced Wednesday was the addition of suggested replies for all Gmail users. The technology, which has been offered in newer versions of Gmail, uses artificial intelligence to analyze emails and suggest short, appropriate replies.

Google said it was also enabling other companies to incorporate the Google Assistant into their devices, including refrigerators, washing machines and speakers, which Google hopes will help make its services even more ubiquitous.

Write to Jack Nicas at jack.nicas@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

May 17, 2017 16:11 ET (20:11 GMT)