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Google Is About to Change the Whole Internet — Again

The biggest mystery surrounding Google over the past year has concerned its core product, its original and still primary source of revenue: Will search engines be replaced by AI chatbots? In May, the company offered some clarity: “In the next era of search, AI will do the work so you don’t have to,” according to a video announcing that AI Overviews, Google’s new name for AI-generated answers, would soon be showing up at the top of users’ results pages. It’s a half-step into a future in which the internet, when given a query, doesn’t provide links and clues — it simply answers.

Any revision of Google’s search engine is consequential. The search box is one of the main interfaces through which people interact with the internet, their computers, and their phones. This half-step has been treated as a watershed event in the press, since Google’s role in the web, as both a distributor and monetizer of attention, is massive, contentious, and maybe about to change.

In nearly a year of testing, however, Google’s AI-search experiment has felt, at least to me, less like a total overhaul than one more dubious entry on an increasingly jumbled results page. Lately, I skim the contents of the AI answer just closely enough to notice that it is sometimes glaringly wrong. Maybe it’ll get better, as Google claims; maybe quality is beside the point if users like it anyway. Either way, the question of whether Google is in the midst of resetting the entire economy of the web, and whether synthesized summaries will deal a final,
fatal blow to publishers and other Google-dependent platforms, won’t be open for long.

It’s clear enough what Google wants from AI when it comes to search: to fend off competition from the likes of OpenAI and maintain its place at the top. But search was just one of dozens of products and features it showed off in May at Google I/O, the company’s developer summit. The updates to search served the secondary purpose of letting the world know that the company is all in on AI — a bet that AI offers an opportunity to profoundly reset norms around privacy, again, in favor of companies like Google.

Google is rolling out, or teasing, new image-, audio-, and video-generation tools. There will be a new voice assistant that can answer questions about what it sees on your device’s camera or screen. There will be upgrades to assistants that can answer questions about your documents, or a meeting that just finished, or the contents of your inbox. There will be a program that can scan phone calls, in real time, for language associated with scams.

Posted on: 5/19/2024 2:00:24 PM


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