Google Event: The smartphone race is over, but the AI war has just begun

google event smartphones AI

Google’s October event revealed one key fact: The race to build the best smartphone is over, but the battle to build the best cross-platform AI has just begun.

At Google’s October event, CEO Sundar Pichai gave a poignant opening address. At a conference largely designed to show off the company’s hardware, Pichai began with a different address altogether, offering that “We’re at a seminal moment in computing.  “If you think about it, computing has always had big shifts in every 10 years or so…“It’s clear to me that we’re heading from a mobile-first to an AI-first world.”

To many, Pichai’s opening statement had whiffs of marketing spiel on the wind as opposed to a nugget of truth, yet I believe this is a quote we’ll keep coming back to in the years to come.

Read: Google CEO Sundar Pichai outlines his vision for artificial intelligence

The fact of the matter is this; the smartphone race is winding down. As our Editor Theunis van Rensburg stated on Bandwidth Blog On Air, we’re in a period of smartphone history where we can’t expect to see major shifts or amazing new features introduced in every new cycle. Instead, we’re at a time where smartphone design will become more iterative and refined than anything else.

While to smartphone connoisseurs that might sound tremendously boring, I actually feel we’re set to see the most exciting mobile development take place in the next couple of years; the conclusion of the smartphone arms race and the beginnings of a new frontier wherein consumers will interact with AI.

We’re already there

That premise is one which is largely upon us already; if Facebook’s algorithms don’t already define what stories we see, then Google is tailoring the internet to provide relevant, contextual search results. The key difference is that now, in 2016 onwards, artificial intelligences have just the right garden to grow in.

With the addition of smart home products – such as Amazon’s Echo, Google’s forthcoming Home, and Apple’s rumoured solution, the circle is relatively complete. A solid ecosystem now exists between web services that can tether together smartphones, tablets, hybrids, television sets, and desktop computers. And while Google – to my mind – likely has the best and earliest shot and developing the glue to hold that all together, the next arms race will see companies like Microsoft, Amazon, Apple, and Facebook (among others) compete for the throne.

It’s all about Machine Learning, baby

Google’s Assistant marks the first occasion in which AI will help us in our daily lives; not only in a means that extends cross-application, but cross-platform. With the context learned from thousands of users around the world, Google is already well on its way to turning the backbone of the internet into a wheelbarrow that can shift and remedy information from a variety of sources and uses. What might seem trite today – such as the ability to caption a photo – could power the next wave of contextual search results the next time you fire off an image search. Now, that’s power.

It’s apparent, too, that the research and development of AI will be altogether different than how tech companies handled building their smartphone platforms. Whereas the latter happened behind the high walls of corporate secrecy, AI will be developed on a far more equitable plane – one need only look at the recently announced Partnership on AI, which some of the major developers of artificial intelligence will participate in, to see that.

That, more or less, is a good thing. It means computers, smartphones, or hardware in the future will benefit from not only better software, but a greater convergence in which AI will harness the power of both to offer information far more quickly.

Will smartphones die? No. I can foresee them becoming more powerful than ever, but our market understanding of them might well change as a result. Instead of viewing smartphones as an essential choice between flavours, we’ll become locked into product platforms on our own volition based on what works for us – the promise of different hardware features might well fall away as support for technologies such as virtual reality or depth-sensing become standard. While different sizes and shapes might well stand the test of time, as AI increases its foothold across smart devices, there’ll be less need to limit their capabilities for the sake of carving market niches.

google event smartphones AI
Google’s Assistant was the real focus of its October event.

Google’s hardware is just a stepping stone

Google’s entrance into hardware signifies something different. Whereas before it was happy to flirt with the idea of an official phone – produced by a partner company such as LG, HTC, or Huawei – the fact that the company has now created its first official phone signifies that it has a greater plan; else, we’d still be stuck with Nexus devices. Pixel and Pixel XL, as such, don’t necessarily represent the core experience of Android as Nexus devices did; they represent a fertile bed for the next great technology – artificial intelligence – to be grown on.

Granted, we haven’t seen Google’s entire plan just yet. While rumours hint at the truth – a Huawei-produced tablet could be in the works, in addition to a Chrome OS and Android merger which could, in essence, create a Google laptop – the indication is already there; a Google hardware lineup is likely on its own. That being said, it’s apparent that Google doesn’t entirely care about hardware or software on their own; it cares about the convergence of the two and what it can create as a result.

Read: Mark Zuckerberg aiming to build his own AI assistant

For now, we’re locked in the stage of humble beginnings. As the smartphone boom closes and the next billion grow ever closer to coming online thanks to campaigns like Facebook’s Aquila drone or Internet.org, the seeds are being sown for technology around us to leap into its next great stage. The ocean that’ll be left to cross – and it’ll be a stormy one, at that – will be reaching users and regions around the globe which haven’t been connected before.

Have your say!

What are your thoughts? Where can you see artificial intelligence taking us from here? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below!

Follow Bryan Smith on Twitter: @bryansmithSA

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