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Tuesday, June 18, 2024

Google Is Racing to Bring More AI to Android

In the days leading up to its annual software conference, Google executives were unusually excited about … wallpaper. Phone wallpaper. Wallpaper that changes and breathes and undulates on Android phones, specifically. Wallpaper that’s generated by artificial intelligence after tapping a few prompts on your phone screen. 

“Generative AI” is the key phrase here. It’s the category of artificial intelligence that tech companies both big and small are hanging their futures on right now. Alphabet-owned Google is one of the pioneers in this space; as Google executives like to remind people, the “T” in OpenAI’s ChatGPT actually refers to transformer technology that Google introduced back in 2017. And Google has been working on humanlike chatbot technology for years. 

But now Google is largely perceived as being behind in generative AI, since both OpenAI and Microsoft (which funds OpenAI) released their GenAI chat tools before Google had a chance to unleash its own tool, called Bard. The release of ChatGPT even reportedly triggered a “code red” for Google, leading the company to funnel more resources into building AI products, and yesterday

So it makes sense that Google would use I/O, its annual developer conference that kicked off today in Mountain View, California, as a stage to tout its latest AI features. AI is the thread woven throughout the program. It’s also featuring prominently in two new Android-specific features, demonstrating just how eager Google is to unleash usable products around generative AI and get into the hands of potentially billions of people. 

“We’re in this position where Google has pioneered much of the seminal research, particularly around this class of large language models, which is the basis of this nonlinear step forward in tech,” Dave Burke, vice president of engineering for Android, said in an interview with WIRED. “And at the same time we have these large surfaces of Android. And we can bring the two things together.” 

“For Google, the Android ecosystem offers a platform to prove its innovative AI portfolio at a scale that not all of their cloud peers can compete with,” says Chirag Dekate, vice president and analyst at Gartner.

Picture This

The new suite of generative wallpapers for Android seem basic but use varying levels of AI. There’s a customizable emoji option and a “cinematic” mode that turns still photos into mini movies. The latter uses on-device machine learning to determine what’s foreground in the image and what’s background, then creates a subtly zooming parallax effect. Generative AI wallpaper is more, well, generative: The user will tap on a series of predetermined prompts offered on the phone, like “classic arts,” “City by the bay,” and “Post-Impressionist,” which then generates entirely new and original wallpapers. 

Google says its image-generation model is trained on public domain artwork, which means it’s likely hoping to head off any sticky ethical issues around the AI art copyright. It also won’t be available to the masses right away: The wallpapers will roll out only to Google’s own Pixel phones first, starting next month. 

So … wallpaper? Google’s seminal research has resulted in AI Van Gogh on your phone? Well, yes, but Burke insists that while “it might seem obvious or simple in retrospect, this is one of the ways we’re thinking that AI can be applied in a very user-centric, responsible way.”

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“We’ve been doing things with AI for a long time as a company. And the advancements in generative AI are pretty exciting,” says Sameer Samat, vice president of product management for Android and the Google Play app store. “But these aren’t that old in terms of putting them into products. So when you talk about productizing all of this, it’s extremely early days.” 

Computer Talk

Another area of Android getting the GenAI treatment: messages. This summer, Google’s Messages app will be imbued with a Magic Compose feature, which uses generative AI to offer suggested responses based on the context of your messages. A lot of messaging apps already do a version of this by predicting which word you might want to use next, but Magic Compose will generate entire sentences (and will helpfully suggest them before you hit Send). 

Magic Compose can also change the tone of your message, if you prompt it to do so, making something sound more formal, more poetic, or more like Shakespeare (really). Burke says this is built on what’s known as a few-shot training model, in which a model can learn to perform an app-specific function based on just a handful of training examples. 

Ben Bajarin, chief executive and principal analyst at Creative Strategies, says Google’s limited rollout of generative AI on Android is a smart approach. “At companies like Apple, and even at Microsoft, there is a genuine concern around this technology. So Google seems to be erring on caution and making sure this is trustworthy before bringing it to billions of customers,” he says. 

Bajarin also pointed out the computing limitations that still exist around these technologies. “On-device AI requires a tremendous amount of computing power,” he says. “Rolling it out to native software will require using the local processing power and not the cloud. If you look at some of the basic demos of Stable Diffusion that Qualcomm has shown, it really highlights the lack of native computing power on our mobile devices.” 

Android’s new generative AI and customization features are just part of a much broader software update. Android 14, which started rolling out as beta software in February, will also include support for larger screens (like the Pixel Fold), battery optimization features, and enhanced security features, like password-replacing passkeys. Google said today that it counts more than 3 billion active Android devices around the globe, spanning phones, tablets, cars, and TVs. On the TV front, Google claims that Android TV OS is the top streaming platform in the world by shipments. And WearOS, its wearable devices software, is fast-growing. 

On stage today, Samat emphasized interconnectivity across different hardware devices, whether that’s by giving people the ability to cast media to non-Google hardware or to find their Apple AirPods more easily from their Pixel phone. Samat noted that more than 800 million phones now use RCS messaging, a standard that Google supports—and that Apple has famously withheld support for. Google executives also reminded the I/O crowd today that the company is working with Samsung to build an Android-based XR system. If you can’t beat ’em, join them? 

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Unless it’s generative AI products. Then, if you’re Google, the pressure is on.

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