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Pichai vows not to rush AI, says efficiency drive continues

Sundar Pichai, chief executive officer of Alphabet Inc., has been struggling to find a place for his company in the AI boom. Google engineers laid the groundwork for OpenAI’s ChatGPT, but Microsoft capitalised on it. Now Google has rushed forward with its own AI tools, notably the chatbot Bard, while trying mightily not to tick off users, regulators or the advertisers that pay its bills. We spoke to Pichai about the strange twists of this AI moment and what he plans to do about them. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You’ve witnessed many waves of innovation in Silicon Valley. What’s the significance of this one?
It’s rare to find things which hit consumers and enterprises and all the way to countries. The pace, the public excitement—it’s definitely a seminal moment.

Many of Google’s new AI products have been presented as experiments. How much potential do you see for them to be a permanent part of Google search?
These are going to be part of the mainstream search experience. There are a few things we want to make sure we get right. People come to us and type queries like, “What’s the Tylenol dosage for my 3-year-old?” There’s no room to get that wrong.

Does it make you uncomfortable that Google’s generative AI products are getting some things wrong?
There’s definitely a trade-off. It’s exciting because there are new use cases; people are responding to it. It’s uncomfortable because it’s inherently generative. There are times it makes up things.

In 2017, Google researchers published a seminal paper introducing the AI technology upon which OpenAI’s ChatGPT is built. Does Google have to change the way it operates?
This is a long quest, working on these ambitious problems. It’s what attracts the best talent in the world. And that helps drive this virtuous cycle by which we are innovating at the cutting edge. None of that changes broadly over time. On the margin, as things get into products, we would think about what is proprietary. But do I expect Google to be an active publisher of research work in this field? Yes.

Does it worry you that Google researchers are leaving to start rivals or to join others like OpenAI?
Googlers have left to create over 2,000 startups, last I counted, and I think that’s great. Some of them are cloud customers down the line for us. Some of them come back. I think it’s healthy.

Are you content with where Google’s Bard chatbot is now, relative to the competition?
There are areas where we do better. There are areas where we are behind. I view this as a very, very early time.

Does Google see this as an existential competition?
It’s a competitive moment, but I’ve built the company to be AI native for a long time. I feel better positioned for this than we were for the shift to mobile.

What do you think of Apple’s Vision Pro headset? Where does that fit in?
I literally haven’t used or seen it, but we’ve always felt computing will evolve beyond the black rectangles. We will have more immersive experiences. I’m excited about the potential for the technology.

In May dozens of prominent AI researchers, including some Google leaders, signed a letter warning about the risk that AI might lead to human extinction. How seriously do you take that threat? What should be done about it?
We should definitely make sure we’re focused on risks of bias or misinformation, safety incidents and so on. There will be serious issues with deepfakes. We need to take it all seriously.

There’s remarkable consensus in the industry about the need for some sort of AI regulation. What does that mean in practice?
Thinking about it in the context of existing regulation, and making it proportionate based on the use cases and the associated risks.

You’ve said tech companies must take care not to see AI as just a race, but there’s a very real sprint to market at Google and elsewhere. What are you doing to make sure ethics don’t fall by the wayside?
We’ve been cautious. There are areas where we’ve chosen not to be the first to put a product out. We’ve set up good structures around responsible AI. You will continue to see us take our time.

There’s been lots of cost-cutting in Silicon Valley in recent months, including at Google. Are you satisfied? Is the company as lean as you want it to be right now?
Our work toward sharpening our focus—I view it as enduring work. We are constantly trying to make the company more efficient.

Early this year, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said his company’s moves to weave AI into search had prompted Google to “dance,” a nod to an old adage in Silicon Valley that big corporations struggle to stay nimble. Was that fair?
I think he said it so that you would ask me this question. It’s all part of the game. Bloomberg

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