Google Calls In Help From Larry Page and Sergey Brin for A.I. Fight
A rival chatbot has shaken Google out of its routine, with the founders who left three years ago re-engaging and more than 20 A.I. projects in the works.
By Nico Grant
Nico Grant, based in San Francisco, writes about Google and the technology industry.
Jan. 20, 2023 Updated 6:41 a.m. ET
Last month, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, Google’s founders, held several meetings with company executives. The topic: a rival’s new chatbot, a clever A.I. product that looked as if it could be the first notable threat in decades to Google’s $149 billion search business.
Mr. Page and Mr. Brin, who had not spent much time at Google since they left their daily roles with the company in 2019, reviewed Google’s artificial intelligence product strategy, according to two people with knowledge of the meetings who were not allowed to discuss them. They approved plans and pitched ideas to put more chatbot features into Google’s search engine. And they offered advice to company leaders, who have put A.I. front and center in their plans.
The re-engagement of Google’s founders, at the invitation of the company’s current chief executive, Sundar Pichai, emphasized the urgency felt among many Google executives about artificial intelligence and that chatbot, ChatGPT.
The bot, which was released by the small San Francisco company OpenAI two months ago, amazed users by simply explaining complex concepts and generating ideas from scratch. More important to Google, it looked as if it could offer a new way to search for information on the internet.
The new A.I. technology has shaken Google out of its routine. Mr. Pichai declared a “code red,” upending existing plans and jump-starting A.I. development. Google now intends to unveil more than 20 new products and demonstrate a version of its search engine with chatbot features this year, according to a slide presentation reviewed by The New York Times and two people with knowledge of the plans who were not authorized to discuss them.
At the same time, Alphabet is scaling back its work force. On Friday, the company said it would cut about 12,000 jobs after a hiring spree during the pandemic and amid concerns of a slowing economy. The layoffs were designed “to ensure that our people and roles are aligned with our highest priorities as a company,” Mr. Pichai wrote in a note to employees.
“This is a moment of significant vulnerability for Google,” said D. Sivakumar, a former Google research director who helped found a start-up called Tonita, which makes search technology for e-commerce companies. “ChatGPT has put a stake in the ground, saying, ‘Here’s what a compelling new search experience could look like.’” Mr. Sivakumar added that Google had overcome previous challenges and could deploy its arsenal of A.I. to stay competitive.
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Since stepping back from day-to-day duties, Mr. Page and Mr. Brin have taken a laissez-faire approach to Google, “two people familiar with the matter said. They have let Mr. Pichai run the company and its parent company, Alphabet, while they have pursued other projects, such as flying car start-ups and disaster relief efforts.
Their visits to the company’s Silicon Valley offices in the last few years have mostly been to check in on the so-called moonshot projects that Alphabet calls ‘Other Bets,’ one person said. Until recently, they have not been very involved with the search engine.
But they have long been keen on bringing A.I. into Google’s products. Vic Gundotra, a former senior vice president at Google, recounted that he gave Mr. Page a demonstration of a new Gmail feature around 2008. But Mr. Page was unimpressed by the effort, asking, “Why can’t it automatically write that email for you?” In 2014, Google also acquired DeepMind, a leading A.I. research lab based in London.
Google’s Advanced Technology Review Council, a panel of executives that includes Jeff Dean, the company’s senior vice president of research and artificial intelligence, and Kent Walker, Google’s president of global affairs and chief legal officer, met less than two weeks after ChatGPT debuted to discuss their company’s initiatives, according to the slide presentation.
They reviewed plans for products that were expected to debut at Google’s company conference in May, including Image Generation Studio, which creates and edits images, and a third version of A.I. Test Kitchen, an experimental app for testing product prototypes.
Other image and video projects in the works included a feature called Shopping Try-on, a YouTube green screen feature to create backgrounds; a wallpaper maker for the Pixel smartphone; an application called Maya that visualizes three-dimensional shoes; and a tool that could summarize videos by generating a new one, according to the slides.
Google has a list of A.I. programs it plans to offer software developers and other companies, including image-creation technology, which could bolster revenue to Google’s Cloud division. There are also tools to help other businesses create their own A.I. prototypes in internet browsers, called MakerSuite, which will have two “Pro” versions, according to the presentation.
In May, Google also expects to announce a tool to make it easier to build apps for Android smartphones, called Colab + Android Studio, that will generate, complete and fix code, according to the presentation. Another code generation and completion tool, called PaLM-Coder 2, has also been in the works.
Google executives hope to reassert their company’s status as a pioneer of A.I. The company aggressively worked on A.I. over the last decade and already has offered to a small number of people a chatbot that could rival ChatGPT, called LaMDA, or Language Model for Dialogue Applications.
“We continue to test our A.I. technology internally to make sure it’s helpful and safe, and we look forward to sharing more experiences externally soon,” Lily Lin, a spokeswoman for Google, said in a statement. She added that A.I. would benefit individuals, businesses and communities and that Google is considering the broader societal effects of the technology.
Google, OpenAI and others develop their A.I. with so-called large language models that rely on online information, so they can sometimes share false statements and show racist, sexist and other biased attitudes.
That had been enough to make companies cautious about offering the technology to the public. But several new companies, including You.com and Perplexity.ai, are already offering online search engines that let you ask questions through an online chatbot, much like ChatGPT. Microsoft is also working on a new version of its Bing search engine that would include similar technology, according to a report from The Information.
Mr. Pichai has tried to accelerate product approval reviews, according to the presentation reviewed by The Times. The company established a fast-track review process called the “Green Lane” initiative, pushing groups of employees who try to ensure that technology is fair and ethical to more quickly approve its upcoming A.I. technology.
The company will also find ways for teams developing A.I. to conduct their own reviews, and it will “recalibrate” the level of risk it is willing to take when releasing the technology, according to the presentation.
The consequences of Google’s more streamlined approach are not yet clear. Its technology has lagged OpenAI’s self-reported metrics when it comes to identifying content that is hateful, toxic, sexual or violent, according to an analysis that Google compiled. In each category, OpenAI bested Google tools, which also fell short of human accuracy in assessing content.
Google listed copyright, privacy and antitrust as the primary risks of the technology in the slide presentation. It said that actions, such as filtering answers to weed out copyrighted material and stopping A.I. from sharing personally identifiable information, are needed to reduce those risks.
For the chatbot search demonstration that Google plans for this year, getting facts right, ensuring safety and getting rid of misinformation are priorities. For other upcoming services and products, the company has a lower bar and will try to curb issues relating to hate and toxicity, danger and misinformation rather than preventing them, according to the presentation.
The company intends, for example, to block certain words to avoid hate speech and will try to minimize other potential issues.
Google expects governments to scrutinize its A.I. products for signs of these issues. The company has recently been the subject of numerous government inquiries and lawsuits accusing it of anti-competitive business practices. It anticipates, according to the presentation, “increased pressure on A.l. regulatory efforts because of rising concerns about misinformation, harmful content, bias, copyright.”
Tripp Mickle and Cade Metz contributed reporting.
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Nico Grant is a technology reporter covering Google from San Francisco. Previously, he spent five years at Bloomberg News, where he focused on Google and cloud computing. @nicoagrant