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Hey, Google Assistant sounds like John Legend (and other advances from Google I/O)

By Published on .

John Legend will be one of the voices Google's Assistant can try on.
John Legend will be one of the voices Google's Assistant can try on. Credit: Google via The Verge

Google promoted its advances in artificial intelligence by showing how machines can make phone calls just like humans—and even sound like John Legend.

In a demonstration on Tuesday, Google Assistant, which is built into phones and Google Home speakers, called local businesses to make reservations. Google Assistant is similar to Apple's Siri and Amazon's Alexa.

"A big part of getting things done is making phones calls," said Google CEO Sundar Pichai at Google I/O developer conference. Pichai went on to demonstrate a "real call" where the assistant dialed up a hair salon and talked to the person on the other end to schedule an appointment.

Google Assistant almost sounds human with pauses in its speech and natural language ticks like saying, "um."

Artificial intelligence was at the heart of every product and service Google presented at the yearly developer conference. Here were the highlights:

AI everywhere

"That phone call was kind of cool," says Noah Mallin, head of experience, content and sponsorships at Wavemaker. "It starts to open the door to really crazy thoughts."

What if the stores and brands could employ the same voice technology, so that eventually a human doesn't have to be on either end of the call, Mallin says. "They would just have to beep and bop at each other."

Google is working on it: a world of artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing that infuses everything people do from shopping to health care. "AI is going to impact many, many fields," Pichai said.

For instance, Google trained a machine to read retina scans for more accurate medical diagnostics than a doctor could provide. The retina provides insights into a person's sex, weight, heart health and more.

Brand assist

Google's advances in AI weren't all as potentially important as improving healthcare; they can also solve a latte.

"Google wants to be that glue between the brand and consumer," Mallin says. "It's not just about advertising either, but through direct relationships when a person is buying or ordering something."

With the better language skills, Google has made it easier for people to talk to Google Assistant and give it commands. Google announced tie-ins with Starbucks, Dunkin' Donuts, Panera Bread, Doordash and Domino's that enable people to place orders through Google Assistant.

Google Assistant also got a voice upgrade. On top of the better language processing that helps it make complex phone calls, people can now pick among six voices with different genders. One of the voices was based on John Legend, who was brought into the studio to create an artificial voice.

Screen time

Google said "smart displays"—screens with the voice assistant built in—will start selling in July from brands like Lenovo. The displays do everything the Home speaker does only with a screen.

There was a demo that showed how a person in the kitchen could search for recipes and call up videos from digital publishers like Tasty, which is owned by BuzzFeed.

"There are going to be some tangible and strong opportunities there for brands," says George Manas, president of Resolution Media. "You can carbon copy that recipe example for a host of situations beyond the kitchen."

News learning

"We are using AI to bring forward the best of what journalism has to offer," Pichai said, as he announced a new Google News redesign with a little help from AI. The site will personalize news with the help of artificial intelligence, and it could help serve more sides of news to people to cut down on bias.

Google revamped News, in part, to clean up the problems that are prevalent on its platform, and across digital, where misinformation can run rampant and spread like wildfire. Also, publishers are struggling to make money from their online content and relying more on platforms like Google and Facebook to reach their audiences.

Google said it would invest $300 million over the next three years to help journalism through its services and products.

The new Google News presents articles and videos in a sleeker way, and it's faster. Google also included a subscribe button so people can pay their favorite news sources.

Google said the new news app and site would roll out to everyone by next week.

Misc. cool

Aside from a robot calling a hair salon and John Legend, Google had a few tricks that could prove popular with the masses. One of them was in its Photos app, which also featured some artificial intelligence layers.

The photo app could colorize old black and white photos with the push of a button.

Of all the wizardry on display, that might have made the audience cheer the loudest.

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