Google’s Quest for a Post-Search Future

Google's Quest for a Post-Search Future

Google’s Quest for a Post-Search Future: Sunny Pichai, CEO of Google, still loves the web. Every morning when he wakes up, he reads Techmeme, a news generator with lots of links that can only be reached online. He says that the web is flexible and strong, and that it can still give people any information they need with the help of a search engine.

Still, the web and its search layer are changing. We can all see it happening: creative AI, social media apps, and short-form video are going against our old ideas about how to find information online. Good online knowledge. Pichai also sees it. But he can steer it better than most people.

Gemini is Google’s most powerful AI model yet. The way Pichai is putting it out makes it seem like he’s more interested in a futuristic version of the web than the old one. The bots are after him, so he needs to be.

Google changed the name of Bard, the chatbot it made to compete with OpenAI’s ChatGPT, to Gemini, the name of the AI model it’s based on that was first shown off in December. The Gemini robot is also going mobile, and it’s getting closer to being available to everyone as it moves out of the “experimental” phase. And on Android, it will have its own app. On iOS, it will be right at the top of the Google Search app. Also, the most advanced form of Gemini will be part of a Google One subscription package that costs $20 a month.

It’s clear that Google is going after ChatGPT and its membership service ChatGPT Plus by putting a paywall on the most powerful version of Gemini. Pichai is also trying out a new idea for what Google can do. For now, it’s not replacing search, but he is making an alternative to see what works.

“This is how we’ve always approached search, in the sense that as search evolved, as mobile came in and user interactions changed, we adapted to it,” Pichai says, speaking with WIRED ahead of the Gemini launch. “In some cases we’re leading users, as we are with multimodal AI. But I want to be flexible about the future, because otherwise we’ll get it wrong.”

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Google Prepares for a Future Where Search Isn’t King

Pichai likes the “multimodal” part of the Gemini AI model. This is one of the things that Google says makes it different from the core of OpenAI’s ChatGPT and Microsoft’s Copilot AI helpers, both of which use OpenAI technology. It means that Gemini was taught with data that wasn’t just text, but also pictures, sounds, and code. So, the finished modal can also speak all of those languages and can be asked to reply by text, voice, or by taking a picture and sharing it.

“That’s how the human mind works, where you’re constantly seeking things and have a real desire to connect to the world you see,” Pichai enthuses, saying that he has long sought to add that capability to Google’s technology. “That’s why in Google Search we added multi-search, that’s why we did Google Lens [for visual search]. So with Gemini, which is natively multimodal, you can put images into it and then start asking it questions. That glimpse into the future is where it really shines.”

Google has also been testing using AI to change its main search interface. They have introduced a creative search experience that shows answers like chatbots before the usual list of ads and links.

The company said not long ago that it doesn’t see a “lightswitch moment” when generative search completely takes the place of Google Search as we know it. Liz Reid, vice president and general manager of Search at the time, said that Google wants to push “the boundaries of what’s possible” and think about “which use cases are helpful” and “have the right balance of latency, quality, and factuality.” Like Pichai, she seems to think it’s time to try some big changes to Google’s current way of doing things.

At the moment, Pichai says that Google is focusing on making the generative AI experience great. However, he is “open to possibilities” for both paid and ad-supported generative AI experiences. He wouldn’t say if the paid version of Gemini would still have no ads at all, but he did point out another Google-owned product where ads can be completely removed.

“YouTube has been a very good example of this,” Pichai says, a reference to the paid, ad-free tier that YouTube started experimenting with several years ago. “Ads allow us to give products to more people, but there will be cases of subscriptions that allow people to get a different experience.” He adds, “I can imagine the same user going back and forth between free search and a Gemini subscription.” It’s possible for the same person to switch between free search and a Gemini contract, he says. So, generative search would no longer be an extra that you can add to your search. It would be the main dish, albeit a more expensive one.

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Google may want to charge for its AI services for another important reason: it helps cover the huge computer costs needed to train and run a large language model.

“We’re able to project forward over our 25 years—if something on day zero costs this much, then what will it cost to perform the same task a year from now, and so on?” Pichai says. “We’ve factored in the efficiencies we’ll gain on the underlying models, and then we price it in a way that we think makes sense.”

No matter why Google charges for a chatbot membership, the technology it offers has to work consistently. Even though Google Gemini is more advanced, Pichai admits that it still has the potential to make people hallucinate, just like Bard did and other creative AI apps have. Pichai says, “We want people to be aware of that,” Pichai says. “I think the technology is useful for many people. But it has to be used in the right way and I still have concerns about people relying on it.”

Of course, Pichai says that Google is trying to stop models from going crazy. But he also says to be careful when using the word “hallucinate” and says that dreaming was both a feature and a bug, which is an interesting way to change the meaning of false information. His view is that technology should be based on facts, but if you turn it down too much, your robot will quickly become dull.

This kind of creative AI should be “imaginative,” says Pichai. “Like a kid who couldn’t tell you what they could imagine when they were making it up.” It’s kind of like the early days of the web.