Blob Opera and the talking paper airplane

Sun May 30, 2021

I don’t know what those Googlers have been smoking these days, but Google I/O this year was just trippy.

It started out with a bunch of colourful, psychedelic slug-like blobs singing opera. Whether a machine-learning experiment or an acid trip, the effect was the same. We were also treated to a bizarre AI-generated conversation with an anthropomorphized Pluto and… a talking paper airplane?

And just when you thought your head would explode after picturing error-corrected logical qubits wrapped up in a “colder than Canada” Bob Ross painting, Google brought back all the gross greens and oranges back from the 70s in a demo for Android’s “new” UI design.

It was a wild, heady, exhausting ride. But now that the I/O-induced haze has dissipated, there are a few interesting nuggets and tidbits I’d like to talk about.

After the brash Blob Opera, it was immediately sobering to hear Pichai mourn over how hard the coronavirus is hitting his home country of India right now.

I really like Sundar Pichai - as CEO, he doesn’t relish the spotlight, but he handles it well. He seems to be a level-headed, humble intellectual who doesn’t rub people the wrong way. If you were to judge a company by the leader at its helm, I wouldn’t blame you if the calm and reassuring Pichai let you trust Google a little more than you would otherwise.

However, one man alone can’t control the inextricable push and pull of conflicting interests in a company as large and varied as Google has become.

For a deep dive into Google’s culture and controversy, I recommend listening to the excellent podcast Land of the Giants. A recent dismaying chapter in Google’s history, for instance, revolved around the firing of key members on Google’s AI Ethics team - allegedly due to a research paper highlighting the downsides of AI.

And yet, despite alienating academics in the AI field, Google is forging on with AI advances in translation, images, and voice. The aforementioned talking paper airplane was a demo of LaMDA - Google’s natural language algorithm built on Transformer, an open-sourced neural network architecture. The technology is impressive, but talking to a paper airplane is so deliberately benign, it borders on satire. Google is desperate to avoid controversy in this area.

With other AI initiatives in simultaneous development like Google’s Multitask Unified Model (MUM) - also built on Transformer - it is becoming clear that Google is positioning conversational AI as the true soul of Google. The problem is that most of us don’t really understand the underlying implications of this increasingly-powerful AI, and Google is fast losing credibility with the researchers who do.

Not a good look for a company whose guiding principle was once “don’t be evil” (a phrase now downplayed in their Code of Conduct).

And yet, the small practical and tangible applications of AI in Google’s most-popular products are genuinely great. When Google Maps delivers a driving route that is less likely to have any sudden stops (Safe Routing), AI is saving lives. Or when Google Maps offers a driving route that may not be the fastest, but uses less gas (Fuel-Efficient Route), AI is saving your gas money - and the environment.

But when Google Lens scans your photograph and tells you where you can buy a pair of shoes visible in the photo, the AI start to get creepy again.

I get it - the conflicting duality of trying to be helpful while also trying to sell you something is something every business struggles to balance. I think that Google overcompensates on both extremes though.

For example, Chrome will soon display all your open shopping carts from all the sites you’ve visited in a new tab. That is plainly icky. And if you aren’t bothered by that sort of cross-site tracking, you should be.

But is it any less disturbing that Google plans to figure out that you’re black and adjust the colour balance in it’s image processing accordingly? Don’t get me wrong - adjusting for darker skin tones is a million times better than the whitewashing camera algorithms from some companies (LG being one). But does Google actually care, or do they just desperately want you to see them as a woke and inclusive company? Or, more cynically, do they only want to know your ethnicity so they can add another data point to your ad profile?

Okay, let’s talk about Google Photos.

I’ve been burned by Google before - the demise of Google Reader being a particularly painful example. So I never expected Google to keep the free-photo-upload gravy train running forever. The fact that free uploads are ending this month is more of an irritant than a full-out sting. I never stopped keeping up with physical photo backups, so I’m not too worried about losing my precious memories. Although, if my house burned down, I’d be out of luck of course.

Hey, we survived the twentieth century without the cloud. Although damned convenient, I’m not quite ready to shackle myself with a lifetime photo-backup subscription just yet. And to be honest, the Google Photos interface has become kind of cluttered and hard to navigate lately. They keep on coming up with new AI-enhanced creations - photo animations and “little patterns” (tracking an object over time - see where your blue backpack has travelled!) being the latest. It’s hard work keeping up with all their suggestions.

Still, it was great while it lasted. Free photo uploads to everyone on planet Earth - the last five years have to be the most documented in human history. Thanks for the memories, Google Photos. I hope you managed to harvest all the image data you needed to feed the google machine.

Right before Steve Jobs passed away he declared “thermonuclear war” on Google for stealing from Apple to create Android smartphones. The more calculating Tim Cook has since defused the hostilities and now happily deposits an eight-billion dollar cheque every year from Google to remain the default search engine on iOS. It’s been abundantly clear over the years that Google’s attempts to compete with Apple are half-hearted at best and instead are focusing on what it does best - machine learning and big data.

That hasn’t stopped Google from aping Apple’s ecosystem strategy this year. They are more tightly integrating Chrome OS with Android for example. They even created a Google TV Remote App for Android. Rumours are floating around about a completely revamped high-end Pixel 6.

I can’t help but feel these efforts are still tepid. Android is only now in version 12 getting around to making navigation and UI animation smoother and faster. But hardware and software integration has and always will make iOS the snappiest of all.

Apple also continues to rule the smartwatch market. Samsung and Google are teaming up to better compete by merging Tizen and Wear OS (and also presumably Fitbit software as well since Google acquired them - what a mess). Whether a desperate move or a strategically-sound one, it doesn’t really matter - it’s simply too late to take on a fully-matured Apple Watch. I hope the merger brings something good to the market though - competition is always good.

There was a lot of frightening, cool, cringey, and weird stuff at Google I/O this year and I’m obviously not going to dissect it all. So I’ll finish up with one of Google’s legit moonshot projects - Project Starline.

Working from home as over-emphasized the fact that video cameras are notoriously bad in just about all laptops and PCs out there. But what if they weren’t? In fact, forget sub-par selfie cams altogether. What if Google could turn you into a 3D hologram? That sounds insane, but that is exactly what Google is going for with this ambitious project. If this research is ever commercialized, we’ll look back at the terrible Zoom calls we endured in lockdown and laugh our collective asses off.

But then again, we’re all getting vaccinated and emerging from the third wave like butterflies out of billions of cocoons. By September we should all be back to face-to-face interaction and dragging our motley collection of video conferencing programs to the trash can.

Unless, of course, there are a lot of holdouts who won’t let go of their threadbare sweatpants unless you pry it out of their cold, sanitized hands.

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