Google I/O 2018: Key takeaways on Duplex, AI, privacy, Android

Google has clearly gone AI first, and Duplex is just one example. Here's a look at the big themes from Google I/O 2018 and what it tells us about the company's strategy.
Written by Larry Dignan, Contributor

Google I/O 2018 provided a lot to consider when it came to artificial intelligence, mobility, and how data can be used to make services better.

But as Google's developer powwow is in the rear view mirror, it's worth considering the high-level takeaways and lessons, as well as what they tell us about the company's strategy.

Here's a look at the key themes from Google I/O.

Google has navigated data privacy scrum well

Zack Whittaker pointed out what wasn't said at Google I/O. The company didn't mention the Facebook data flap and didn't speak to privacy during the Google I/O keynote. The omission was notable given that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella devoted a good chunk of his Build 2018 keynote to the topic.

How has Google avoided the data control issue so well (for now)? Return on investment.

Let's compare and contrast.

  • Facebook takes a lot of your data and knows a ton about you. What do you get in return? Not much. You are the product, and the return to you is better ad targeting. Facebook is a time vampire that doesn't offer you much beyond connecting with friends you likely wouldn't miss over time anyway.
  • Google has just as much of your data if not more. Yet Google consistently gives you a return on that data sharing. Whether it's a helpful Google Assistant tidbit, unsolicited directions from Google Maps, a notification for your flight based on a Gmail entry and learning your screen habits over time, there's a return on your data. Am I thrilled Google knows so much about me? Not really. Do I get value for sharing my information? You bet.

That difference between data and ROI is critical in any privacy discussion.

AI-first is reality

Google CEO Sundar Pichai in 2017 outlined how the company was looking to become AI-first. This focus on AI was a big shift from Google's Android-driven, mobile-first mantra in previous years.

What Google I/O 2018 highlighted was that every product and developer enhancement is viewed through an AI lens. Android's limits on screen time learn over time. The way Google handles photos is driven by machine learning. Google Assistant is improving each year. Google has custom processors to drive AI workloads (that'll be consumed via Google Cloud Platform). The list of AI-driven products goes on and on.

The big takeaway is that Google has reoriented its entire mission around AI. Google Research even changed its name to Google AI. Other tech giants lean that way, too, but Google has focus.

Duplex was something to behold, but there will be backlash

Google unveiled Duplex, a system that can hold conversations with humans in a realistic way. Pichai demonstrated how Google Assistant could make calls at a hair salon and make an appointment. Naturally, you'd get a notification and calendar entry on your Android device.

The unveiling of Duplex and Google Assistant's capabilities captured the imagination and also walked the line of being creepy. Chatting with a bot via text is one thing. Having a computer make calls for you is a whole new deal.

For me, Duplex is the first step toward having a digital twin that I can outsource tasks to. Sure, it's a bit creepy, but crazy useful. Now the details will be tough to navigate. Does Google Assistant have to disclose it's not human? Are umms and hmms a step too far on the realism front? And will humans shun a bot when it calls?

Wellness matters as CYA meets health care

When it came to wellness, Google outlined a few key items worth pondering. Here are the key takeaways:

  • Google's use of machine learning and AI to scan electronic health records was interesting and largely overlooked. If you couple that effort with Google's Health API, and what's possible in Google Cloud Platform, it doesn't take a brain surgeon to figure out that healthcare is a key vertical. Google hasn't put that health continuum of services together yet, but the pieces are coming together.
  • There was something jarring to the Android controls on screen time and the extent Google outlined how limits were needed so people can live their lives. JOMO (Joy of Missing Out) is an acronym that was worth a chuckle. Leave your phone at home and you get JOMO instantly. I like the controls and have my own limits for myself. So, what's the problem? Those controls scream cover your arse to me. Whether it's Facebook, Google, or Apple there's a growing consensus that too much screen time is a health issue. Adding these controls almost feels like the Surgeon General's warning on cigarettes. Controls are handy, but may be there to head off class-action lawsuits in the future.

Android takes back seat

Name me one thing in Android P that you must have this minute.

Hard isn't it?

Android has improved dramatically over the years, and frankly, I prefer it over the increasingly bloated Apple iOS. But the smartphone platforms have gone stale.

Today, Android is merely a vessel to highlight Google's AI prowess. And that's OK. Android becomes more useful, integral to my day-to-day and buys me time.

Read also: Google: Our new Android P beta shows how AI gives you more battery life | Building for iOS and Android: Getting started with Google's Flutter | Android P: New features, release date, and everything you need to know

But Android also doesn't spur much OS lust in me. A new Android certainly doesn't inspire me to buy a new smartphone.

To drive this takeaway home even more, Android has become to Google what Windows has to Microsoft -- a platform that's useful, but it's just a sidebar to the main event.

Android P: All the new features and tools announced (so far)

Editorial standards