Google CEO Sundar Pichai addressing the I/O Conference in San Francisco last week. Photo courtesy: Google
Just a few months back, you wouldn’t fault Google management if they were feeling smug about their market position. With their main revenue generator, the search engine, holding a market share of around 90 percent and the nearest rival – Microsoft’s Bing – managing only around 8 percent, it was even understandable.
All that changed when OpenAI released ChatGPT in December of last year, and analysts suddenly saw the potential of a program that could end Google’s stranglehold. The market leader went into “Code Red” mode, with Google management facing allegations of sleeping at the wheel and being usurped by others.
Now, the empire has returned to the battlefield with its full might. From being coy about its AI prowess, Google has now gone full Monty, bringing AI to the fingertips of a majority of internet users, as over 90 percent of those who log onto the internet still use their products every day.
The Sundar Pichai show in San Francisco last week was nothing but the unveiling of a battle plan for artificial intelligence supremacy. In that process, Google is linking AI to its different products, which will eventually bring most global internet users face-to-face with AI.
Its AI chatbot, Bard, cautions about the inaccuracy of its replies and warns against considering them as healthcare or financial advice. But whether the message gets through to the users remains to be seen.
Like OpenAI's ChatGPT or Microsoft's Bing, Google's chatbot Bard also provides a concise answer with a Google search engine option if you want to check out the links.
In the version of its search engine released to users in the US, the “AI Snapshot” will appear with the conventional format of blue links appearing below or on the side. There's also an option for another view, which breaks down the snapshot into its sentences and provides a link to the sources of information for that specific sentence, according to ABC News.
Microsoft, which linked ChatGPT to its Bing search engine in February, has yet to find any substantial business impact. Its user base failed to register any significant growth despite a quick jump in download numbers. A report by The Information says Bing's share of searches on desktops increased by a mere 0.25 percent since then, meaning Google's position was hardly threatened by AI-aided Bing. Now, there's even less incentive for users to switch as Google will offer similar capabilities.
But more than Microsoft, those who should be worried about Bard are the content generators and online publications who depend on the internet traffic for revenue. There are warnings already that many of them will be forced to shut down once Bard goes online.
They spend money and effort to gather information that AI chatbots like Bard scoop up from the internet without any acknowledgment. As PCMag reports, writers watching the live demo of Google search engine's AI capabilities felt a chill when they saw the new version.
As the report notes, the resources and efforts that these organisations put into generating content are not compensated, and Bard’s snapshot feature could lead to a drop in their internet traffic and subsequently fewer ads. This is very similar to what happened to traditional media houses when free internet-based sites led to the closure of thousands of newspapers across the world.
A Forbes article called Bard's snapshot feature a move similar to “dropping a nuclear bomb on the online publishing industry” and warned that it will “wipe out countless websites”.
The power of AI will not be limited to word regeneration alone as the company has added muscle to its photo editing tools as well. A “Magic Editor” added to Google Photos will enable users to edit specific parts of a photo, fill in missing gaps, and even reposition the subject.
Such abilities are also extended to videos through a “Universal Translator” that Google is working on. This technology will redub video footage in a new language and sync a speaker's lips accordingly, allowing users to produce copies of the same video in different languages at once.
This should worry users in India, where the circulation of fake audios and videos is becoming increasingly common. The company acknowledges that a feature like the “Universal Translator” could be misused for creating deepfakes.
“Some of the same underlying technology could be misused by bad actors to create deepfakes. So we built the service with guardrails to prevent misuse, and we make it accessible only to authorised partners. Soon we’ll be integrating new innovations in watermarking into our latest generative models to also help with the challenge of misinformation,” said James Manyika, head of Google’s new “Technology and Society” department during the event.
Google also released a 91-page paper outlining the capabilities of its PaLM 2 large language model, saying it will be better than GPT-4 at text generation and unveiled a new code generation tool, to challenge GitHub’s Copilot, which is backed by Microsoft.
Clearly, Google is coming out with all of its guns blazing and as the tech giants go to war, the collateral damage it will cause remains unknown. As they say, after a war what matters is who is left, and not who was right. All we can do right now is wait and watch.
Sodium battery for EVs is ready, says China
China has been in the pole position when it comes to the electric car sector and industry analysts have been keenly watching recent announcements from some companies there about batteries that use sodium instead of lithium. As the sale of EVs climbs across the world, the search for batteries that can function without rare metals like lithium is yet to yield any tangible results. But some Chinese companies say they have managed to do it.
In March, JAC Motors said their joint venture with Volkswagon is releasing the world’s first car with a sodium-ion battery which will power the car for 250 km per single charge. The battery, which could help reduce the cost of EVs by 10 percent, was developed by Beijing-based start-up Hina Battery Technologies. In April, China’s largest EV battery maker, CATL, announced it had developed a sodium-ion battery. Auto analysts are still waiting for verifiable data and till then we can’t be sure whether it is one more way these companies are taking us for a ride.
Software helps builders tackle regulation mazes
Running around to get different permits to build a home is a tedious job, be it in India or the US. One startup in San Jose, PermitFlow, has developed software to streamline the application maze and its management. The firm says it has managed to help dozens of customers in areas like California, Texas and Florida to build single homes and multi-home facilities in its first year itself. The CEO of the startup, Francis Thumpasery told TechCrunch that his firm’s automation has helped speed up the process which otherwise used to take years. The firm, which went onstream last year, works with developers and contractors to provide an end-to-end process that helps them save preparation time, reduce errors and increase transparency. Looks like this is something the Indian construction sector badly needs too.
Singapore central bank boss gets one more innings
Singapore’s central bank chief Ravi Menon is to continue on the post for one more term despite saying earlier that he is ending his run which started in 2011. Menon has been in the forefront to enable digital payment system across the region and under his watch the country has hosted seven global fintech conclaves. The thing to watch now is whether he will quit the post and enter politics to serve as the finance minister. Some of his predecessors have taken that route and Singapore is expected to have a snap poll soon.
Read this only if you have a strong stomach
A long read and video on Bloomberg has a riveting story about a chemical engineer of Chinese origin who is facing jail term over attempts to steal technology from her employer Coca-Cola. Her aim was to set up a firm in China to make plastic liners similar that is coated inside Coke cans. Apparently, it is a closely guarded formula like that of the recipe of the drink itself. But what made us almost puke was this line in that report: without the liner, the sugary acidic brew would devour the can. Jeez, to think that was it is the same thing we have been gulping down after every meal…..