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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Google devising radical search changes to beat back AI rivals

A sign on the Google campus in Mountain View, Calif., on Oct. 20, 2020. The tech giant is sprinting to protect its core business with a flurry of projects, including updates to its search engine and plans for an all-new one.

By Nico Grant

Google’s employees were shocked when they learned in March that South Korean consumer electronics giant Samsung was considering replacing Google with Microsoft’s Bing as the default search engine on its devices.

For years, Bing had been a search engine also-ran. But it became a lot more interesting to industry insiders when it recently added new artificial intelligence technology.

Google’s reaction to the Samsung threat was “panic,” according to internal messages reviewed by The New York Times. An estimated $3 billion in annual revenue was at stake with the Samsung contract. An additional $20 billion is tied to a similar Apple contract that will be up for renewal this year.

AI competitors such as the new Bing are quickly becoming the most serious threat to Google’s search business in 25 years, and in response, Google is racing to build an all-new search engine powered by the technology. It is also upgrading the existing one with AI features, according to internal documents reviewed by The New York Times.

The new features, under the project name Magi, are being created by designers, engineers and executives working in so-called sprint rooms to tweak and test the latest versions. The new search engine would offer users a far more personalized experience than the company’s current service, attempting to anticipate users’ needs.

Lara Levin, a Google spokesperson, said in a statement that “not every brainstorm deck or product idea leads to a launch, but as we’ve said before, we’re excited about bringing new AI-powered features to search, and will share more details soon.”

Billions of people use Google’s search engine every day for everything from finding restaurants and directions to understanding a medical diagnosis, and that simple white page with the company logo and an empty bar in the middle is one of the most widely used webpages in the world. Changes to it would have a significant impact on the lives of ordinary people, and until recently, it was hard to imagine anything challenging it.

Google has been worried about AI-powered competitors since OpenAI, a San Francisco startup that is working with Microsoft, demonstrated a chatbot called ChatGPT in November. About two weeks later, Google created a task force in its search division to start building AI products, said two people with knowledge of the efforts, who were not authorized to discuss them publicly.

Modernizing its search engine has become an obsession at Google, and the planned changes could put new AI technology in phones and homes all over the world.

The Samsung threat represented the first potential crack in Google’s seemingly impregnable search business, which was worth $162 billion last year. Although it was not clear whether Microsoft’s work with AI was the main reason Samsung was considering a change after the past 12 years, that was the assumption inside Google. The contract is under negotiation, and Samsung could stick with Google.

But the idea that Samsung, which makes hundreds of millions of smartphones with Google’s Android software every year, would even consider switching search engines shocked Google’s employees.

After some workers were told that the company was looking for volunteers this month to help put together material for a pitch to Samsung, they reacted with emoji and surprise. “Wow, OK, that’s wild,” one person responded.

A Google spokesperson said that the company was continuously improving its search engine to give users and partners more reason to choose Google and that Android phone makers were free to embrace technologies from different companies to improve their users’ experience.

Samsung and Microsoft declined to comment.

Google has been doing AI research for years. Its DeepMind lab in London is considered one of the best AI research centers in the world, and the company has been a pioneer with AI projects, such as self-driving cars and the so-called large language models that are used in the development of chatbots. In recent years, Google has used large language models to improve the quality of its search results but held off on fully adopting AI because it has been prone to generating false and biased statements.

Last week, Google invited some employees to test Magi’s features, and it has encouraged them to ask the search engine follow-up questions to judge its ability to hold a conversation. Google is expected to release the tools to the public next month and add more features in the fall, according to the planning document.

The company plans to initially release the features to a maximum of 1 million people. That number should progressively increase to 30 million by the end of the year. The features will be available exclusively in the United States.

Google has also explored efforts to let people use Google Earth’s mapping technology with help from AI and search for music through a conversation with a chatbot, a Google director wrote in a document.

Other product ideas are in various stages of development. A tool called GIFI would use AI to generate images in Google Image results. Another tool, Tivoli Tutor, would teach users a new language through open-ended AI text conversations.

Yet another product, Searchalong, would let users ask a chatbot questions while surfing the web through Google’s Chrome browser. People might ask the chatbot for activities near an Airbnb rental, for example, and the AI would scan the page and the rest of the internet for a response.

Jim Lecinski, a former Google vice president of sales and service, said the company had been goaded into action and now had to convince users that it was as “powerful, competent and contemporary” as its competitors.

“If we are the leading search engine and this is a new attribute, a new feature, a new characteristic of search engines, we want to make sure that we’re in this race as well,” Lecinski, a professor of marketing at Northwestern University, said in an interview.

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