How Siri, Alexa and Google Assistant Lost the A.I. Race

Amazon’s misfires with Alexa may have led Google astray, said a former manager who worked on Google Assistant. Google engineers spent years experimenting with its assistant to mimic what Alexa could do, including designing smart speakers and voice-controlled tablet screens to control home accessories like thermostats and light switches. The company later integrated ads into those home products, which did not become a major source of revenue.

Over time, Google realized that most people used the voice assistant only for a limited number of simple tasks, such as starting timers and playing music, the former manager said. In 2020, when Prabhakar Raghavan, a Google executive, took over Google Assistant, his group refocused the virtual companion as a marquee feature for Android smartphones.

In January, when Google’s parent company laid off 12,000 employees, the team working on operating systems for home devices lost 16 percent of its engineers.

Many of the big tech companies are now racing to come up with responses to ChatGPT. At Apple’s headquarters last month, the company held its annual A.I. summit, an internal event for employees to learn about its large language model and other A.I. tools, two people who were briefed on the program said. Many engineers, including members of the Siri team, have been testing language-generating concepts every week, the people said.

On Tuesday, Google also said it would soon release generative A.I. tools to help businesses, governments and software developers build applications with embedded chatbots, and incorporate the underlying technology into their systems.

In the future, the technologies of chatbots and voice assistants will converge, A.I. experts said. That means people will be able to control chatbots with speech, and those who use Apple, Amazon and Google products will be able to ask the virtual assistants to help them with their jobs, not just tasks like checking the weather.

“These products never worked in the past because we never had human-level dialogue capabilities,” said Aravind Srinivas, a founder of Perplexity, an A.I. start-up that offers a chatbot-powered search engine. “Now we do.”

Cade Metz contributed reporting.

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