Google, Not the Government, Is Building the Future

Consider Google. On Wednesday, the internet search company kicked off its annual developer conference near its headquarters in Mountain View, Calif. The company showed off several advances to its voice-enabled assistant and its mobile operating system. Among other things, you can now point your phone at an object in the real world — a flower, a sign in another language, a marquee for a rock concert — and the phone will give you more information about what you’re looking at (for instance, a button to buy tickets for the concert).

Some of this was cool, but little was truly groundbreaking, which isn’t surprising: We’re in an awkward phase of the tech industry, one marked by incremental improvements to technologies that we think of as boring — and lots of exciting promises about far-off tech that isn’t quite ready for prime time.

The real advances at Google are in that second category. At last year’s show, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, inaugurated what he called a new era for Google. The search company would henceforth be an “A.I.-first” company — that is, most of its advances would be driven by artificial intelligence techniques.

The technology would play a role in consumer products, like Google’s instant translator or its photo app, which can recognize uniquely human search terms (it can find pictures of “hugs,” for instance). But A.I. also informs Google’s more ambitious plans. The company is using artificial intelligence to teach computers to understand language, to see and hear, to diagnose diseases, and even to create art.

A lot of these plans will fail, but Google isn’t making big, long-term bets out of altruism. The company understands that the A.I.-based projects that succeed could be transformational: They will alter existing industries and create huge new ones, including a stream of new businesses from which Google can profit.

Google is not alone in this quest to build a future out of A.I. Its parent company, Alphabet, is spending billions to inject machine intelligence into much of the global economy, from self-driving cars to health care.

Then there are the other members of the Frightful Five — Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft — which are also spending heavily on the intelligent future. Collectively, the five are among the biggest investors in research and development on the planet. According to their earnings reports, they are on track to spend more than $60 billion this year on research and development. By comparison, in 2015, the United States federal government spent about $67 billion on all nondefense-related scientific research.

There are two ways to respond to the tech industry’s huge investments in the intelligent future. On the one hand, you could greet the news with optimism and even gratitude. The technologies…

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