MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. – Google CEO Sundar Pichai on Tuesday pledged his company will move forward with its technology responsibly, as more consumers are voicing their concern about how their data get shared online and their addiction to apps.
“We are in an important inflection point in computing, and it’s exciting to drive the technology forward,” Pichai told thousands of developers gathered at an outdoor theater on the company’s Mountain View campus. “It’s made us even more reflective of our responsibilities.”
The three-day conference, known as Google I/O, is an annual event for developers that this year drew more than 7,000 people. At past events, Pichai has expressed enthusiasm for a world in which artificial intelligence and machine learning propel the company forward and help solve global problems. Now, tech leaders, including Pichai, are taking a more muted tone, particularly in the wake of a backlash about huge companies’ collection and distribution of people’s data.
Pichai said there are “very real and important questions being raised about the impact” of advances in artificial intelligence.
“We feel a deep responsibility to get this right,” he added.
“We help you focus on what matters”
Pichai outlined ways Google intends to help consumers contain their digital lives. An Android operating system update this fall will show people how much time they spend on specific apps and allow them to set time limits. A “Do Not Disturb” mode could automatically be triggered if a consumer places a phone facedown, muting incoming calls or notifications. People who have trouble disconnecting before they go to sleep can set a time when their phone’s screen turns gray, which could deter their behavior.
This week, YouTube, the video service owned by Google, will roll out a feature that can remind users to take a break from viewing online videos.
“We want to help you understand your habits and focus on what matters,” Pichai said.
Gene Munster, a managing partner at venture firm Loup Ventures, noted that while Google addressed how it would handle questions about the addictive nature of phones, the company stayed away from discussing concerns about data privacy — a predominant concern in the wake of revelations that data from tens of millions of unwitting Facebook users were obtained by a consulting firm called Cambridge Analytica with ties to Donald Trump’s presidential campaign .
“The tech narrative pendulum has swung from new services to privacy and control, and Google today was heavy on control and largely avoided the privacy topic because they did not want to step in something,” Munster said.
Some consumer advocates also said Google’s efforts are not enough, especially when it comes to privacy concerns. Google makes most of its money through advertising that is targeted at users based on the information they share such as their location and search history.
Privacy tools already in place
“This is merely window dressing as Google continues to spy on children who use YouTube and invade our privacy when we use its mobile services,” said Jeffrey Chester, executive director for the Center for Digital Democracy. Chester said he would like to see Google have an independent outside audit of its data practices to identify the extent of the information Google collects and how it is used.
Google pointed to tools it already has in place to protect privacy, such as allowing users to see and delete the history of their activity on Google, including websites they have visited. Google also has parental controls that can restrict content.
“Privacy and security will always be a top priority for us and we’ll continue improving our protections as our products evolve,” the company said in a statement.
Other tech companies have also been touting their social responsibility credentials — especially Facebook, which is trying to move past the Cambridge Analytica scandal. At Facebook’s developer conference last week, CEO Mark Zuckerberg spoke about how the social network can be used for good, for example, by raising money for causes or meeting like-minded people, including romantic partners. He also talked about data-protection actions his company is taking in the wake of the scandal.
Microsoft chimes in
Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella also chimed in, writing on LinkedIn on Monday, “We need to ask our ourselves not only what can computers do, but what should they do?”
Pichai emphasized the potential uses of Google’s artificial intelligence technology in health care — for example, how the company is using artificial intelligence to help doctors to predict diabetic retinopathy, an eye disease that could lead to blindness in patients. Google is also looking into using images of the eye to determine whether people are at risk for heart disease.
Google also said Tuesday that it will run tests this summer to see how its digital assistant can handle conversations that arrange hair appointments and restaurant reservations. In addition, Google Maps will allow friends to share places they want to eat, and vote on their choices through the app.
But a good chunk of Pichai’s talk, which opened the conference, was spent on consumers’ overall digital practices. Google says more than 70 percent of consumers say they want help striking the balance on their technology use. Sameer Samat, a Google vice president of product management, recalled a time when his partner placed Samat’s phone in a hotel’s safe and said he wouldn’t get it back until after their vacation. After a few hours without his phone, it became easier to disconnect, Samat said.
“Helping people with their digital well-being is more important to us than ever,” Samat said during his presentation on usage controls.