Throughout the past decade, Google has excelled at pushing artificial intelligence forward, thanks to the company's combination of first-class engineering talent and access to a stupendous amount of training data. The more recent rapid increase in computers' ability to "understand" images and videos "has profound implications for our core mission" of organizing the world's information, Google CEO Sundar Pichai said in a keynote address at the company's yearly developer conference, known as I/O, on Wednesday.

With a dual focus on machine learning and visual communication, Google's message was a mashup of Jeff Bezos's recent shareholder letter and Mark Zuckerberg's keynote at Facebook's own developer conference.

Throughout the keynote, Pichai and other Google employees presented new features that rely on machine learning, especially augmented forms of visual communication. Most notable were developments to Assistant (its Siri and Alexa rival), new features for Photos, and the announcement of a standalone Daydream VR headset that doesn't rely on a smartphone.

Google Photos and Google Assistant were both discussed in depth. Photos, which boasts 500 million active users, is gaining an array of smart sharing features to make it easier for friends and families to automatically circulate the best snapshots. Assistant is coming to iOS, which makes sense since Google is a horizontal company; it flourishes by serving as many users as possible, across all platforms. The extent of Google's reach was itself another of Pichai's talking points -- he announced that Android now boasts two billion active devices, and its users installed 82 billion apps and games from the Google Play store last year. Google Drive (which only garnered a quick mention) has 800 million active users, and three billion objects are uploaded every week.

Pichai also specified that Assistant is available on 100 million devices -- he didn't name the number of active users, but Assistant is barely a year old, after all. The service will be gaining new languages throughout 2017, opening up to the non-English-speaking world.

YouTube CEO Susan Wojcicki made her I/O debut, mentioning that users watch one billion hours of YouTube videos every day. And near the end of the keynote, Clay Bavor mounted the stage to explain that Google will be collaborating with HTC (makers of the Vive) and Lenovo to bring its standalone headsets to the market, which was reported early by Variety.

The latter announcement was technically part of a VR and AR segment, but the most exciting AR announcements came along with Assistant. You can point your phone at the label on your friend's Wi-Fi router and be automatically connected to the internet, or point your phone at a marquee advertising a concert and proceed directly to ordering tickets. You can also go back and forth with Assistant to place an order at Panera (or some other restaurant) by voice, the key convenience of which is that Google already stores your address and payment information.

Google doesn't have a cohesive plan to devour the world like Facebook, but the company is bringing its technical prowess to bear to make every product it offers smarter and more convenient. The I/O keynote also featured announcements of lots of little optimizations to Android, and plans to make the mobile operating system work better for users with constrained data availability or battery life. Watch out, developing world. Google has plans for you.

Published on: May 17, 2017