Google is accelerating a little too fast into the AI unknown

Google is set to take its huge user base on what could be a wild ride ahead
Google is set to take its huge user base on what could be a wild ride ahead


Its plan to suffuse its online toolkit with generative AI is too risky

Google is deep in the AI arms race now. The search giant made a flurry of announcements last week about enhancing its main products with artificial intelligence. In line with Bloomberg reports of a rush to stuff generative AI into as many services as it could, the company revealed at I/O, its annual developers conference, that new tech for generating content was coming to Gmail, Google Docs, Google Maps, Google Photos and more. It also unveiled the biggest change to Google Search in years, the awkwardly named “search generative experience," a single, AI-generated answer to queries that will sit above the usual results of ads and links.

Google has been making one thing clear: As much as the company is under pressure to be careful about how it deploys this potent technology, it is forging ahead fast. But it ought to be careful about moving so fast that it undermines itself with users and advertisers. Executives haven’t been shy about telegraphing their priorities. Note how Google Senior Vice President Prabhakar Raghavan answered a question from Bloomberg on outside scrutiny of its AI. He said Google would contribute to the scientific community, but “look even harder at moving things into product, rapidly."

When OpenAI launched ChatGPT six months ago, Google looked like a laggard. Now Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google parent Alphabet, has pledged to “reimagine all our core products" with generative AI. Some observers are impressed. Citigroup analysts said in a report that they came away from the event “confident in Google’s generative AI strategy." (Bloomberg has its own language model for finance, which will likely compete with OpenAI’s GPT-4.)

Google appears stronger in cloud businesses, where it trails Amazon’s AWS and Microsoft’s Azure. Companies can use Google’s Duet AI service to build their apps without much coding knowledge. Gmail users can get their emails drafted by AI. A text-to-speech tool from Google called Chirp is taking drive-thru orders for Wendy’s. These can boost Google in a field that’s notoriously entrenched, thanks to legacy contracts with companies. But the real question mark is over planned changes to search, Google’s biggest product.

When users type in a query, Google’s search engine will soon churn out AI answers synthesized from other text across the web. Here’s an example of a query about visiting a national park with kids and a dog: The answer is displayed at the top, and on the left are links to sites from which it drew its answer. But this will look very different on the smaller screen of a mobile device. Users will need to scroll down to see those sources, never mind other sites that might be useful to their search.

That should worry both Google’s users and paying customers like advertisers and website publishers. More than 60% of Google searches in the US occur on mobile phones. That means for most people, Google’s AI answer will take up most of the phone screen. So, will users keep scrolling around, looking for citations they would like to tap? Probably not.

When asked about whether people will visit those sources, a Google executive told The Washington Post, “I really, genuinely think that users want to know where their information comes from."

I don’t buy it. Search users might glance at the links to double-check that they look legitimate, but most probably won’t click on them. That takes a few extra seconds of scrolling and loading, an eternity online. There is, after all, a reason for the joke that the best place to store a dead body is page two of Google’s search results. Most people can’t be bothered to keep searching beyond the first list of links.

“It’s safe to bet on laziness," Silicon Valley luminary Paul Graham tweeted on Tuesday, the day before Google’s announcement. Graham said generative AI was “one of the biggest bets on laziness in history."

Graham is right. And the price could be the ire of advertising customers if Google’s AI search becomes so good that users stop clicking around on links. It could also risk eroding the trust of consumers if the tool starts generating too many erroneous answers, a problem OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Microsoft’s Bing and Google’s own Bard have all encountered. In a sign Google has yet to even nail down the basics, a tech journalist who asked Google’s new AI search for a chocolate chip cookie recipe got one with no chocolate chips.

That illustrates what uncertain times these are for Google. Company executives have been saying over and over that AI search is experimental. But for Google and hundreds of millions of users, taking part in this ‘experiment’ might feel like travelling in a car whose steering wheel is being designed on the fly. We’re in for a wild ride, so fasten seat belts.

Parmy Olson is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.

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