Google dropped a lot of news on Day One of Google I/O, its annual developer conference, and it sees artificial intelligence taking an even larger role in how we interact with our devices. Google envisions a future where AI is more ubiquitous where we’ll be making requests of our phones, computers, cars, in-home speakers, and much more.
While it’s great that there’s a bigger Nest Home Max and that Pixel phones will soon have the timelapse feature, Google made more meaningful improvements to its existing products in ways that will take them from simply helpful to life changing.
Pivoting on privacy
The issue of privacy has spent a lot of time in the spotlight over the course of the last year or two. In addition to security breaches at major companies, once-trusted social networks have also come under fire for violating our trust. Google has been paying attention.
One of the core tenets of Android Q, says Google, is privacy.
For example, Google will make account profile photos more obvious in the upper right corner for key apps such as Gmail, Drive, Contacts, and Pay. Users can tap their picture to easily jump to their Google Account dashboard where they can make changes when needed. Google says this tool is headed to Search, Maps, YouTube, Chrome, Assistant, and News later this month.
On-device Machine Learning is here to help.
Google’s incognito mode also saw a huge boost. The browser-based tool allows people to use the web without worrying about their history. More Google Apps are set to have incognito mode, including YouTube, Search, and Google Maps. When using Maps in the incognito mode, users’ location history will not be recorded, and searches will not be stored. The function can be turned on and off easily by tapping the user profile photo.
Related, Google is simplifying the process of scrubbing your web and app activity. Users can already set a three- or 18-month time limit on how long their browser and app use history sticks around. This function will apply to location history starting in June.
Machine Learning is here to help, as well. Google says it made a significant improvement in machine learning with respect to speech recognition and synthesis. The company can now store the entire English language on phones in a package that’s just 80MB. With speech recognition taking place on the device — rather than in the cloud —peoples’ utterances will not need to transit the web.
None of these sounds particularly important, but the sum of their parts means our collective privacy is just a bit more, well, private.
Google’s leap in on-device Machine Learning will perhaps have the biggest impact on accessibility. Project Euphonia specifically looks to improve the Android experience for those who have speech and hearing impairments.
The Euphonia team, which falls under Google’s AI for Social Good program, analyzed a wider range of speech patterns. Working together with the ALS Therapy Development Institute and the ALS Residence Initiative, Google recorded the voices of people with speech impairments. It then developed a model for recognizing this speech so that it can be transcribed reliably by phones, PCs, and other devices. The end result is a more consistent way for those with speech impairments to be understood by those around them.
For those who struggle to hear, a Live Caption feature can be enabled on phones that instantly transcribes spoken words in real-time on the screen. It can handle live captioning during activities such as Duo video calls or when watching YouTube videos.
The average person may not benefit overmuch from these improvements. However, under the purview of inclusion, those who have limited access to or use of mobile devices should soon have a more immersive and complete experience.
Normally I wouldn’t tout a mid-range phone as one of the “most important things” to be announced at a software developer conference, so hear me out on this one.
The 2018 Pixel 3 and Pixel 3 XL were impressive in many ways — including their price tag. With costs ranging from $800 to $1000, Google’s best services and features were out of reach for those who couldn’t afford the phones. The Pixel 3a and 3a XL solve this conundrum. Sort of.
Security has become a major issue in the mobile space. To address this, Google issues monthly security patches for the Android platform. Sadly, very few phones receive these updates in a timely manner. In fact, few phones other than Google’s own Pixel-branded hardware see the updates at all. One of the core features of the Pixel 3a and 3a XL will have access to these monthly security patches.
Thanks to the lower price points ($399 for the 3a, $479 for the 3a XL), more people will be able to snag a Pixel and be protected by its superior security protections.
Google has crossed a significant chasm.
The phones also offer a significant percentage of the high-end Pixel experience for half the price. And, they are more widely available in the U.S., U.K., and India.
In strengthening privacy, expanding access to mobile services, and widening the scope of security, Google has not necessarily jumped far forward, but it has crossed a significant chasm in its offerings.