Google Starts Its I/O Conference With Updates to Assistant and Privacy

(Bloomberg) -- Google kicked off its biggest developer event of the year with a heavy emphasis on its artificial-intelligence based assistant and new privacy-focused features.

People will soon be able to search Google Maps and YouTube in private "incognito" mode, a feature that has been available on the company’s Chrome browser for years. Google will also put privacy controls on the first page of settings menus in its apps, executives said Tuesday at the I/O conference in Mountain View, California. Users of Android mobile software will be able to authenticate a login to a Google account by tapping a button on their phones.

Much of the initial presentation made by Google executives at the opening session focused on AI features meant to simplify daily tasks, such as booking a rental car or screening calls. The company stressed tools that are meant to help people with disabilities or those who don’t know how to read. For example, Google engineers shrunk the size of its speech and text translate program so people with slower internet connections and less expensive phones, particularly in developing countries, can use the service.

“We are moving from a company that helps you find answers to a company that helps you get things done,’’ Google Chief Executive Officer Sundar Pichai said in his opening remarks.

The Alphabet Inc. unit is working to convince consumers and regulators that it takes privacy and security seriously. Even as executives spoke to thousands of developers in the open-air theater near the company’s campus, a small plane flew overhead, pulling a banner that read “Google control is not privacy.”

For the assistant upgrades, Google’s emphasis was on speed. The company didn’t share any new data on users of its Google Home products or the digital assistant, which competes with rival voice-based services from Inc. and Apple Inc. Pichai shared a new computing landmark that showed a vast improvement in how quickly Google’s assistant can churn out results and flip through apps on the phone. "This makes the assistant faster," he said. "So fast that tapping to use your phone would seem slow."

Google has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of the phone-tapping Pichai was talking about. While the company hasn’t offered a clear business model for its assistant, voice search does have the potential to take time away from Google’s lucrative web search, and Google doesn’t want to surrender this burgeoning business to rivals.

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