3D video calls, AI skin cancer spotters and conversational chatbots: Google’s annual I/O conference, explained

Google's Vice President of Android and Google Play Sameer Samat speaks during Google I/O, the company's annual three-day developer conference, in Mountain View, California, U.S., May 18, 2021. Google/Handout via REUTERS ATTENTION EDITORS - THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. NO RESALES. NO ARCHIVES
Google’s Vice President of Android Sameer Samat speaks during Google annual three-day developer conference, in Mountain View, California (Picture: Reuters)

Google’s annual developer conference, I/O, revealed a raft of new products and features after being cancelled due to coronavirus last year.

Artificial intelligence (AI) took centre stage, with Google revealing a skin-cancer identifying app and a new conversational chatbot, LaMDA.

But there were a host of other eye-catching announcements, like more inclusive camera tech and language, a complete overhaul of the Android operating system, and futuristic technology for 3D video calls.

Here are the most important takeaways from the conference.

Artificial Intelligence powered tools

Google's Derm Assist tool can reportedly identify more than 288 skin conditions and is rolling out later this year (Photo: Google)
Google’s Derm Assist tool can reportedly identify more than 288 skin conditions and is rolling out later this year (Picture: Google)

One of Google’s most significant announcements was a ‘dermatology assist tool’, which can reportedly identify more than 288 skin conditions using AI – and it’s been given medical approval to operate in Europe.

The tool, which is aimed at being an assistant to doctors rather than replacement, will be rolled out later this year.

Named Derm Assist, the program uses machine learning and 65,000 images of diagnosed conditions, as well as millions more of images people were concerned about.

It marks one of the first times an AI-powered healthcare tool is available en masse to the public.

Google also revealed a new ‘conversational technology’ called LaMDA, which aims to solve one of ‘computer science’s most difficult puzzles’ – conversation.

The AI-powered tool appears in demos to speak remarkably like a human, and can not only respond to questions, but also remember the thread of conversation to have more open-ended dialogues.

In demo videos, a Google engineer talks to LaMDA as if it were a paper plane or the planet Pluto, with the tool responding to questions playing the role of those objects.

It’s not clear how ‘on the fly’ these demos were, or whether they’d be replicable in the real-world, but Google claims the technology will be used to power some its products that use conversation, like Assistant.

However, the company will first make sure the technology adheres to its ‘AI principles’, to ‘minimise risks’ and reduce the chance the tech is used for ‘ill use.’

In a more practical announcement, Google also announced it would be using AI to curate photo albums to share with users, similar to how Memories on Facebook and Apple work now.

The new photo album tools will look for ‘little patterns’ and allow users to block out traumatic periods of their life in curated collections.

Greater inclusivity for cameras/writing

An example of Google's 'assisted writing' tool in action (Photo: Google)
An example of Google’s ‘assisted writing’ tool in action (Picture: Google)

After a tumultuous year in a series of internal battles over how Google handles diversity and inclusion, the search engine giant has revealed a number of changes in an effort to make its technologies more inclusive.

The first is a more inclusive camera, which Google says more accurately depicts skin tone.

Google’s Sameer Samat said that ‘photography has not always seen us as we want to be seen’ for people of colour, and that the company has made changes to auto white balance adjustments to ‘bring out natural brown tones’.

The technology, which will be featured on Google’s flagship Pixel phone, will be out later this year.

Google has also announced changes to its office functionality software, like Docs, Meet, Sheets, Tasks and Slides, uniting them under the umbrella ‘Smart Canvas’ tool.

With a new ‘assisted writing’ tool, Google will suggest writing changes where it thinks appropriate, as well as more ‘inclusive’ terms to the user when using ‘gendered terms’.

In an example Google gave, a user who wrote ‘Chairman’ would be given the option of using ‘Chairperson’ or ‘Chair’, gender-neutral alternatives.

The company has been under pressure to be more inclusive after it was branded ‘institutionally racist’ by former employee and AI academic Timnit Gebru.

Gebru claims she was fired from the company after she co-wrote a paper about discrimination in AI last year, though Google contest this version of events.

Android 12

Google's Android 12 is reportedly one of the biggest overhauls for the operating system in recent history (Photo: Google)
Google’s Android 12 is reportedly one of the biggest overhauls for the operating system in recent history (Picture: Google)

Google claims its next Android update – 12 – will be ‘the biggest design change in Android’s history’.

Some of the reported features will make the app’s design more like Apple, with updated privacy features giving users more control over the amount of information apps can see, as well as a light to tell users if a device’s camera or microphone is being used – both features that iOS already has.

Much of the changes focus on ‘personalisation’ and a slicker user interface, with new animations and greater customisation tools available to users from the get go.

The Android 12 Beta is currently available for download in the Google App store.

3D video calls

Codenamed Project Starline, Google has reportedly come up with a 3D video calling system (Photo: Google)
Codenamed Project Starline, Google has reportedly come up with a 3D video calling system (Picture: Google)

After a year of being physically separated and resorting to endless, draining Zoom calls, Google claims to have invented a more palatable solution.

Codenamed ‘Project Starline’, the technology looks straight out of Star Trek, with a specially designed screen reproducing your family, friend or colleague in 3D to talk to.

The technology is apparently a combination of several technological breakthroughs: ‘computer vision, machine learning, spatial audio and real-time compression’.

The end result, according to Google, is the ‘effect is the feeling of a person sitting just across from you, like they are right there.’

While the technology is currently still in only a few select Google offices, it will be reportedly rolled out to more ‘enterprise’ partners later this year.

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