Google Assistant gets AI boost – but will it make it smarter?

The AI chatbot race is far from over, despite ChatGPT’s current dominance, and Google is not showing any signs of letting up. In fact, reports suggest Google is preparing to “supercharge” Assistant, its virtual personal assistant, by integrating generative AI features similar to the ones found in OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Google’s own generative AI chatbot Bard

Google has begun development on a new version of Google Assistant for mobile (check out the full list of devices that will be able to run , as stated in an internal email circulated to employees as reported by Axios. This is allegedly going to take place through a reorganization of its present Assistant team which will see a reduction of “a small number of roles”.

The exact number of employees that are expected to be let go has not been specified, though Axios has claimed that Google has already laid off “dozens” of employees. We have contacted Google to find out more.

Google Assistant

(Image credit: Google)

The newer, shinier, and AI-connected Google Assistant

As reported by The Verge, Google is looking to capitalize on the momentum of the rapid development of large language models (LLMs) like ChatGPT to  “supercharge Assistant and make it even better,” according to Google spokesperson Jennifer Rodstrom. 

Google is placing a big bet on this Google Assistant gambit, being “deeply committed to Assistant” and its role in the future, according to Peeyush Ranjan, Google Assistant’s vice president, and Duke Dukellis, Google product director, in the email obtained by Axios.

This step in Google’s AI efforts follows Bard’s recent big update which enabled it to respond to user queries by “talking” (presumably meaning that it will reply using a generated voice, much like Google Assitant does), visual prompts, opening up Bard to more countries, and the introduction of over 40 languages. 

Google has not yet revealed what particular features it’s focusing on for Assistant, but there are plenty of ways it could improve its virtual assistant such as being able to respond in a more human-like manner using chatbot-like tech.

Making sure customer data remains safe and protected

Google Assistant is already in many people’s homes thanks to it being included in many devices such as Android smartphones and Google Nest smart speakers (find out how the Google Nest currently compares here) , so Google has an extensive number of users to test with. “We’re committed to giving them high quality experiences,” Rodstrom told the Verge. 

Of course, this does raise concerns about the privacy and security of its customers, as Google is likely to try and implement changes of this type to its smart home products, and some people may not be comfortable with giving the search giant even more access to their private lives. 

There is also a major concern (which, to be fair, also applies to other chatbots such as ChatGPT); accuracy of information.

google home

(Image credit: Google)

Tackling the issue of bad information and final thoughts

Google could tackle accuracy and misinformation concerns by making the generative AI being developed for Google Assistant devices linked to Google Search, as Bard is not intended to serve as an information source.

In a recent interview, the Google UK executive Debbie Weinstein emphasized that users should double-check the information provided by Bard using Google Search (as reported on by The Indian Express). 

If we’re talking hands-free Assistant devices, I assume that there is development happening to add mechanisms of this sort. Otherwise, users have to carry out a whole interrogation routine with their Assistant devices which could interrupt the flow of using the device quickly and intuitively.

It’s an enticing idea – the home assistant that can fold your laundry and tell you bedtime stories, and steps like these feel like pushes in that direction. It all comes at a cost, and the more tech saturates out lives, the more we expose to those who wish to use it for ill-intentioned purposes. 

This is going to be a huge issue for many people, and it should be, and Google should make just as much of an effort to secure its users data as it does doing magic tricks with it. That said, many Google device users and Android users will be looking forward to a more intelligent Google Assistant, as many report that they don’t get much sense from it at the moment. We’ll see if Google can deliver on its proposed steps (hopefully) forward.

Hopefully, these upgrades to both Bard and Google Assistant will make them, well, more intelligent. Putting security and privacy aside (only for a brief moment), this has real potential to make users' home devices, like Nest devices, more advanced in their ability to react to your questions and requests with relevant information and tailor responses using your personal information (responsibly, we hope).

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Google Docs is getting a whole lot smarter – and collapsable?

In its eternal struggle to replicate features that Microsoft 365 and even Office has had for aeons, Google Docs is getting – make sure you’re sitting down – collapsible headings.

This is good – it’ll keep documents from feeling cluttered or unruly, we’re just at a loss as to why it’s taken until 2023 for this to happen.

The announcement, posted on the Google Workspace updates blog, revealed that the change will arrive shortly for Google Workspace and Personal users but, as tends to happen to us, we found that the feature isn’t yet available for us specifically.

 Making a word processor fit for purpose

We’re not being contrarian for clicks when we assert that Google software has always been behind the times – whether it’s deciding to chase the AI zeitgeist after Microsoft finds success in that space or still lacking reorderable headings in the document outline, meaning I much prefer to first draft long-form work in Microsoft Word.

And it is a shame that Google is treating artificial intelligence (which, as we’re being urged to understand at the moment, is simply a form of machine learning) as the be all and end all. 

The best way to enhance a productivity tool isn’t to throw in features that trade on buzzwords and promises of a personal assistant to do your work for you. Less ambitious features, unconcerned with grabbing headlines but which are altogether more important at making work bearable.

Google is obviously going for a little from column A and and a little for column B with this approach. Its happy medium is something like the “smart chips” across Google Workspace, allowing documents to contain links to other ones, files, people, or events, making them better at centralising information.

The “smart chips” are good, in that “smart” here means “convenient” rather than “literally sentient”. I feel like I’m on a theme here,  having written about the ills of AI in office software relatively recently, but I might like to revise what I wrote there.

It’s not so much that I need to be dazzled by innovation to keep me conscious, I just need to be able to get through the day without wanting to throw my cloud-driven office software out of the window.

So, Google, take note: make it easy to export images from Docs without making me download a zipped .html file of the whole document, do the reorderable outline thing, and just generally step back in time to 2003. That all sounds reasonable.

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Microsoft’s ChatGPT-powered Bing AI gets smarter with more local knowledge

Microsoft’s Bing AI just got some more improvements, including one that should make the chatbot considerably more helpful when it comes to providing tailored recommendations based on your local area.

In a blog post introducing the latest changes, Microsoft acknowledged that it had received feedback telling the company that the ChatGPT-powered Bing needed to do better with local-related queries.

In other words, specific requests such as asking for the whereabouts of a store in your neighborhood, for example.

Microsoft informs us that it has bolstered Bing’s chops in this regard, so it’ll deliver “better answers if you’re trying to find a park, a store, or a doctor’s office near you.”

Other tweaks Microsoft recently applied to its Bing chatbot include increasing the limit of the max turns you can take (queries) in a single conversation from 15 to 20. Based on the allowance of 10 daily sessions, that gives you a limit of 200 turns per day in total.

Image and video search capabilities are also integrated in the chatbot now. These will pop up as answer cards, allowing the user to click ‘see more’ to dive into further detail with a Bing image search.

Analysis: Pushing forward and besting Bard

Obviously beefing up the performance of the Bing AI to do better with local queries is an important move to make. It’s no good having an all-singing and dancing AI (you have asked the chatbot to sing to you already, right?) if it falls down embarrassingly when it comes to making basic recommendations about locations and services near you.

Mind you, the enhanced performance for these kind of queries sounds like it’s in the early stages of getting a good coat of polish. As Microsoft puts it: “Expect us to make further improvements in local grounding based on your feedback.”

Like everything with Microsoft’s ChatGPT-powered AI, then, it’s very much a work in progress. Still, the amount of progress being made is impressively sure and steady, which has got to be a worry for Google.

Google’s rival AI, Bard, has been notably slow off the starting blocks. Indeed, it feels like Google forced Bard onto the starting blocks before it had even laced its trainers, because the firm felt like the new Bing couldn’t be left unanswered, seeing as the ChatGPT-powered AI is already boosting traffic to Microsoft’s search engine.

We’re told that Bard will become more capable, and will receive improvements to its reasoning skills later this week, and it’s clear enough that Google recognizes it needs to move faster with its rival AI. At the same time, it can’t afford any missteps as seen with Bard’s launch (and to be fair, with the Bing AI’s launch too, although Microsoft seems to have recovered pretty well from the mishaps Bing encountered early on).

Our main worry about Microsoft is that the success of the Bing chatbot – so far – could go to the company’s head. There’s already worrying talk of jamming adverts into Bing AI, which we very much hope won’t happen. That’s probably a forlorn hope, and if it turns out that way, this could be an area that Bard could turn to its advantage. That said, it’s not like Google won’t be surveying every avenue of monetization down the line, too – it’d be pretty naïve to think otherwise.

Both companies would do well to remember that these AIs must be perceived as helpful friends, though, and not ones with a hidden agenda. Or, more to the point we suppose, a poorly hidden agenda which becomes painfully transparent…

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Microsoft’s CEO calls Alexa and Siri ‘dumb’ – but ChatGPT isn’t much smarter

In an interview with the Financial Times a few weeks ago, Microsoft’s CEO Satya Nadella dismissed voice assistants, such as Alexa and Siri, as “dumb as a rock”.

This might seem a little rich coming from the CEO of a company that launched (and then abandoned) the unloved Cortana voice assistant, but I actually agree. However, unlike Nadella, I'm not so sure that the new wave of AI chatbots are where the future really lies – or at least not yet. 

Sure, they appear to be smarter than the first bunch of voice assistants, including Amazon's Alexa, Apple's Siri and Google's (less charmingly named) Assistant, but that's not saying a lot. I was initially really impressed with these assistants, particularly Alexa, to the extent that I put aside my misgivings about how much information Amazon already collected about me, and filled my home with Echo devices of all shapes and sizes.

That all seems a long time ago now, though. Despite all the promise those voice-activated digital assistants had when they launched, I can't help but feel they’ve turned into little more than hands-free light switches and timers for when I’m cooking. They even made me temporarily forget how to use a real light switch. Seriously.

That’s it. I don’t even use Alexa to play music any more. Partly because none of the Echo devices I have come with remotely decent speakers, and also because Alexa seems to have developed a strange habit where when I ask for a song to be played, it more often than not chooses a random alternative take or live version, rather than the studio version I was after. All very frustrating, especially if you're a Bob Dylan fan.

Even as a light switch, I’ve found it increasingly unreliable. I now often have to repeat myself several times before Alexa understands my request and complies. That’s if I’m lucky. Sometimes it listens, then just does nothing.

It’s become more of an inconvenience and annoyance – the exact opposite of what these virtual assistants were supposed to be. To be fair to Nadella, he told the Financial Times that “Whether it’s Cortana or Alexa or Google Assistant or Siri, all these just don’t work. We had a product that was supposed to be the new front-end to a lot of [information] that didn’t work.”

We’re not alone in getting disillusioned with voice assistants. As the Financial Times reports, Adam Cheyer, co-creator of Apple's Siri, says that “the previous capabilities have just been too awkward… No one knows what they can do or can’t do. They don’t know what they can say or can’t say.”

It also seems like the companies behind the voice assistants are losing interest. Not only did Microsoft unceremoniously dump Cortana after years of trying to get Windows 10 and Windows 11 users to embrace (or at least tolerate) it, Amazon has cut a large number of jobs recently, and there are reports that the teams involved with Alexa and Echo devices have been particularly hard hit.

Two wrongs don’t make a right

It may be easy to suggest that Nadella’s dismissal of voice assistants is down to sour grapes, as Microsoft’s Cortana was the least popular out of the ‘big four’ – which also includes Alexa, Google Assistant, and Siri (sorry, Samsung, but no one likes Bixby either) – but I certainly agree with him. The shine has worn off.

However, it’s increasingly looking like Microsoft thinks that artificial intelligence chatbots, most noticeably ChatGPT, could solve these problems – and it’s here where I’m going to have to disagree, at least for now.

Microsoft is a big investor in ChatGPT and OpenAI, the company behind it, but when it announced it was bringing the power of ChatGPT to its Bing search engine, it managed something rare: it got people excited about Bing.

Suddenly, people were keen to try out a browser which had for so long been neglected in favor of Google. This surge in interest, plus widespread coverage in the press, has deepened Microsoft’s love affair with ChatGPT.

Having an AI bot that can converse with humans in a life-like way, and use huge amounts of stored data in its own libraries and on the internet to answer questions, seems like the natural evolution of voice assistants.

And, one day it might be. However, the technology has so far not lived up to expectations. People using ChatGPT or the version included in Bing have found the chatbot can give incorrect information, and it can also behave strangely, especially if you challenge it when it replies with the wrong answer. A similar issue emerged with Google’s rival Bard AI, which returned an incorrect answer to a question during the launch event. This quickly became quite embarrassing for Microsoft and Google, and it proved to a lot of us that AI bots are not quite ready for the limelight.

Can’t live up to the hype, sometimes unreliable and even a bit frustrating? That certainly sounds familiar, so if Microsoft and other companies don’t want history repeating, they’d do well to think twice before rushing to implement AI bots in voice assistants.

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Bing chatbot just got smarter – and it’s about to get different AI personalities

Microsoft has deployed a new version of its Bing chatbot (v96) featuring improvements to make the AI smarter in a couple of key areas – and a big change has been flagged up as imminent, too.

Mikhail Parakhin, who heads up the Advertising and Web Services division at Microsoft, shared this info on Twitter (via MS Power User).

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So, what’s new with v96? Parakhin explains that users of the ChatGPT-powered Bing will now experience a ‘significant’ reduction in the number of times that the AI simply refuses to reply to a query.

There will also be “reduced instances of hallucination in answers” apparently, which is industry lingo meaning that the chatbot will produce fewer mistakes and inaccuracies when responding to users. In short, we should see less misinformation being imparted by the chatbot, and there have been some worrying instances of that occuring recently.

The other major news Parakhin delivers is that the so-called tri-toggle, known more formally as the Bing Chat Mode selector – featuring three settings to switch between different personalities of the AI Bing – is set to go live in the “next couple of days” we’re told.

Analysis: Long and winding road ahead

The ability to switch between a trio of personalities is the big change for the Bing chatbot, and to hear that it’s imminent is exciting stuff for those who have been engaging with the AI thus far.

As detailed previously, the trio of personalities available are labeled as Precise, Balanced, and Creative. The latter is set to provide a chattier experience, and Precise will offer a shorter, more typical ‘search result’ delivery, with Balanced being a middle road between the two. So, if you don’t like how the AI is responding to you, at least there will be choices to alter its behavior.

Various different versions of the Chat Mode selector have been tested, as you would imagine, and the final model has just been picked. This is now undergoing honing before release which should happen later this week as noted, but we’re guessing there’ll be plenty of further fine-tuning to be done post-release.

Certainly if the overall Bing AI experience has been anything to go by, as the whole project is, of course, still in its early stages, and Microsoft is chopping and changing things – sometimes in huge ways – seemingly without much caution.

The current tuning for v96 to ensure Bing doesn’t get confused and simply not reply will help make the AI a more pleasant virtual entity to interact with, and the same will hopefully be true for the ability to switch personalities.

At the very least, the Creative personality should inject some much-needed character back into the chatbot, which is what many folks want – because if the AI behaves pretty much like a search engine, then the project seems a bit dry and frankly in danger of being judged as pointless. After all, the entire drive of this initiative is to make Bing something different rather than just a traditional search experience.

It’s going to be a long road of tweaking for the Bing AI no doubt, and the next step after the personalities go live will likely be to lift that chat limit (which was imposed shortly after launch) to something a bit higher to allow for more prolonged conversations. If not the full-on rambles initially witnessed, the ones that got the chatbot into hot water for the oddities it produced…

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