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Friday, February 23, 2024

Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai on Maps, AI, Ads, and Ambient Navigation

The future of Google Maps is one in which algorithms are drawing buildings, AR is helping you decide what to eat, and Google Maps technology exists more broadly outside of the actual Google Maps app. That's all according to Sundar Pichai, the CEO of Alphabet, Google's parent company. In an interview with WIRED on Wednesday, Pichai said that Maps in particular has been a fertile testing ground for the "AI-first" approach he started pushing for when he became CEO of Google in 2015.

Pichai's statements come just as Google Maps is celebrating its 15th birthday—the service launched on February 8, 2005. To coincide with the anniversary, Google is releasing a global update to the Maps app. It's not a dramatic redesign, but it moves some of the more hidden features of the apps, like a Contributions tab and an Updates tab, into the main page of Maps. It also makes one of the app's newer augmented-reality features more readily available.

Pichai's remarks on Maps also come as Google endures intense scrutiny from regulators over its digital advertising business. Yesterday, The Wall Street Journal reported that the US Justice Department is studying the market dominance of the company's DoubleClick platform. Maps is not a significant source of revenue for the company, but it is one of the Google products that does serve up advertising. When asked about the current investigation, Pichai says the company plans to "constructively engage" in conversations on these matters.

"We provide platforms, and we provide them in many different contexts," says Pichai, who recently took on an expanded role as CEO of all of Alphabet. "I've said this before: I think with scale, it makes sense that things are looked at. Our goal is to show what we are doing, and I think we go to great lengths to make sure the DoubleClick platform is done in a way in which the majority of revenue through those platforms goes to publishers … to the extent there's feedback on something that needs to be done differently, we've shown we will incorporate that."

Redrawing the Map

The Maps redesign is intended to showcase the company's more ambitious map functions, and, according to Dane Glasgow, VP of product at Google Maps, it comes in response to the evolving needs of Maps users. In its earliest days, Maps was mostly a digital representation of an atlas. The perfect storm of GPS-enabled smartphones, Street View technology, and user-generated data helped the platform rapidly evolve. And as it gained more and more features, that bloat got stuffed behind a hamburger menu in the top corner.

This new redesign is supposed to simplify things. The app icon itself is getting overhauled: Instead of a mini map, it's now a Googly-colored pin. The main screen of the app now shows five new tabs: Explore, Commute, Saved Places, Contribute, and Updates (for the latest buzz about nearby goings-on). Other options in the app present themselves to the user based on context. "As we introduce things like more data about restaurants, for example, they're gonna ask, 'What's the best pizza place to go to?'" Glasgow says. "Increasingly, people are recognizing that they can ask more and more information about the world."

Commute and public transit options are getting an update. If you're plotting out a trip to work, additional settings will pop up during route selection that include factors like accessibility, security presence, and temperature of a train car. In some markets, women-only transit cars will be identified. These factors are assessed, Waze-like, from information provided by other Maps users. Google first added crowdedness predictions to Maps last year. The newer screening options are slated to roll out in March, though that will vary based on region.

Immediately available, however, is Google's reemphasized augmented-reality mode. The company first showed off Live View at its software developer conference in 2018 and started rolling it out in 2019. The feature itself hasn't changed much—hold up your phone and arrows appear within the camera view to point you in the right direction. But now, AR will be available in Maps without starting navigation. People can search for a nearby store or museum, and Live Mode will be ready to activate with a single tap, instead of requiring the user to launch the directions feature first.

This seems simple enough from the description, but augmented reality requires a staggering amount of data behind the scenes to function properly. It's built on top of existing Street View data, which is gathered by the sensor- and camera-laden cars that Google started to deploy way back in 2007. Live View also scoops up data from users' cameras as they're tapping into the AR feature. A GPS signal isn't enough to determine exactly where you're facing, so Live View uses machine learning to compare the scene captured by your camera to the billions of Street view images and other user contributions.

"Overall, I think computing should work in a way where it's much more intuitive to the way people live and not the other way around," Pichai says. "AR and Maps is really in the sweet spot of that, because as humans we're walking around the world, perceiving a lot, trying to understand a lot." Pichai says he sees a future in which Maps users are walking around and an AR layer of information is popping up in Maps, showing them vegetarian menu options at nearby restaurants.

That doesn't mean AR in Google Maps works like magic now—or will in the near future. "We talk about the double-edge sword of AR," says Alex Komoroske, director of product management at Maps. "If you get it exactly right, it's extremely intuitive. But if we get it wrong, it is actively confusing. It's worse than showing nothing."

AI Marks the Spot

To keep up with its own grand Maps vision, Google has come to rely on these kinds of machine-learning programs to decipher complicated infrastructure at a global scale. Through test cases in India and Nigeria over the past couple of years, Maps engineers have used ML models to map out roadways and determine building outlines based on satellite imagery. Pichai says that in the last year alone, Google has mapped as many building exteriors as it did cumulatively in the 10 years prior.

He also says he sees AI being deployed horizontally across Google Maps features, not just in assigning street names and outlining buildings. Those examples range from showing people the popular dishes people are eating at a restaurant when you look up directions to that spot, to predicting much more critical situations—earthquakes, hurricanes, heavy rainfalls, or floods. "Obviously, there's a lot of work to be done in those areas," Pichai says, but he believes those predictive models could be in Google Maps in as soon as three to five years.

In addition to spending billions on its own mapping data, Google relies heavily on user contributions to contextualize the glut of new information. It's one thing to map a spiderweb network of dirt roads in the mountains of India, but quite another to know what they're named. Google says users provide 20 million bits of content every day, but there's always a need for more. Hence the prominent new Contribute tab on the Maps main screen.

The increasing emphasis on personal interaction loops within the Maps—users voluntarily adding images and street names, detailing live updates of their travels, reviewing restaurants, uploading videos of their surroundings to Google's servers—underscores that the success of Google Maps depends heavily on whether people keep using Maps, and not, say, opt for the much more private Apple Maps instead. Google Maps is gleaning data from its users whether they're actively contributing critical information, navigating in the app, or simply tapping to access the new Live View feature. (And remember that Google has gotten into trouble for tracking some users' locations even after those users have asked it not to.)

Mapping the Future

For the past several years, the Google Maps experience has largely involved opening up a discrete app, especially on mobile phones. Pichai envisions a future in which the information from Google Maps is much more "ambiently" available.

He says he believes Google's Maps API, or, the communication protocol that allows different apps to connect to one another, will be used in more apps that have nothing to do with mapping—but might require navigation in a non-obvious way. A retail store or an entire mall could offer a unique shopping experience, he cited as an example, and the information is presented by that brand, but the navigation technology is provided by Google. (When I asked about what this means for Google's dominance in ads, Pichai pointed out that Google offers an API licensing model that doesn't require ad hosting.)

"So [Maps] becomes more than just always being a destination. It's about getting the right experience, and I think it needs to get more intuitive, more natural," Pichai says.

That naturally raises questions about the future of Maps as they might exist on non-smartphone devices, like AR glasses—something that Google was early on but hasn't had tremendous success with. On that, Pichai declined to comment.

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