The Human Side of Technology: 5 Key Themes from Google I/O 2018

A year ago, Google announced it was shifting from mobile-first to AI-first. Much has changed in the last year, but Google’s strategy for product development certainly hasn’t. Few new products were announced Tuesday at its headquarters in Mountain View at Google I/O. Still, many of Google’s existing products and platforms have received an infusion of AI in hopes to not only improve the intelligence of its products, but simplify the experience and improve the digital wellbeing of its billions of users each year.

With a focus on the human side of technology, Google’s announcements hope to not only impact the way people interact with its products, but also free up more time to interact with each other. Here are the five big themes that caught our attention.

1. Human-centered AI

Google is lapping its peers in the AI race, and rather than forcing its way in to products and overcomplicating them, Google AI is finding ways to make its existing products better than ever. Simplifying interactions and adding a human touch has been a top priority over the past year and it shows with the newest updates to Google Assistant. Along with new, more natural sounding voices for Assistant, two key features have been added. The first, Continue Conversation, can keep conversations going without the “Hey Google,” wake word each time you have something to add, and the second, Multiple Actions, can understand several intents from a single utterance. These two additions bring Google’s Assistant much closer to human conversation and make interacting with technology more intuitive than ever. 

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Multiple Actions can tease apart requests that AI has struggled with in the past.

2. Knowing when to unplug

When Dave Burke, VP of Engineering for Android, handed the stage off to Sameer Samat, VP of Product, he tee’d his colleague up to focus on one of the new key themes of Android: digital wellbeing. Samat led with a story about his wife locking his phone in a hotel safe on day one of a seven day family vacation, and how much more he was able to enjoy his trip because of it. As concerns rise over striking the right balance between digital productivity and being present, Google has focused on introducing new features into Android that will expose digital habits and encourage time away from your phone. With a revamped app usage dashboard, daily app limit timers, Shush (shown below), and Wind Down — which fades your screen to grayscale before bed — Google is helping users spend less time staring at their phones and more time connecting with the people around them. 

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 Android Shush will automatically enter Do Not Disturb as soon as you flip your phone over.

3. Google Assistant is Finally an Assistant

The “holy-sh*t” moment of this year’s I/O was the demo of Google Duplex, a new service that brings together multiple years of Google’s research in Deep Learning, Natural Language Understanding, and Text-to-Speech. When Google CEO Sundar Pichai reemerged on stage halfway through the keynote, he repeated Google’s vision of Assistant: “to help get things done.” He then played recordings of two phone calls: one to a salon to make an appointment and another to a restaurant to make a reservation. If you listen to the calls, it may be hard to convince yourself that Google hasn’t set up a call center full of real, human assistants to make these types of calls on your behalf, but in reality there's a human receiving the call but Google’s AI is making it. The tone, word choice, and pace of the conversation suggest Google Assistant could pass the Turing Test, and we could very well be getting a brief glimpse into the future of Google helping you “get things done.”

4. The Power of Suggestion

A year ago, Google introduced suggested apps in its Android launcher, which has had 60 percent success in predicting what app you’re going to open based on context — think time of day, location, and previous usage. This year, Google is taking things a step forward and offering App Actions and Slices. By adapting in real-time, Google hopes to get users to the right action, not just the right app, in even less time. This idea of making suggestions isn’t just restricted to the Android app launcher and Google search, but also other Google apps such as Photos, which will now suggest certain actions based on what picture you’ve taken.

Serving up more intelligent, suggestive interactions is becoming a must-have when it comes to industry leading customer experience. By seamlessly taking users to the actions and information they’re looking for, products — like the ones created by Google — are more likely to see users engaging time and time again.

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Google Photos will understand when you snap a picture of a document and suggest you convert it to a PDF.

5. Making a connection

In past years, a common theme at I/O has been Google’s plans to connect people through its products. Interestingly, this year there were very few references to features that can help accomplish this (the auto-share feature of Google Photos and the live-voting in Google Maps are the only two that come to mind). Google also made no reference to its recent push to implement the RCS messaging standard set to replace SMS, and in general mentioned very little in the way of sharing, connections, and social media. As tech giants face scrutiny over their role in unhealthy online interactions, Google is setting out to improve real-world interactions. By making AI more human, encouraging users to unplug, becoming a true assistant, and making its products more suggestive, Google is well on its way. 

Want to explore the intersection of humanity and technology? We’re hosting our annual digital innovation summit — themed “Being Human” — June 21 in Chicago. For more information and to register, visit solsticefwd.com.