It’s the Artificial Intelligence, stupid!

Reviewers comparing the newly announced Google Pixel 2 phones to the iPhone 8/X and the Samsung Galaxy Note/S8 are completely missing the point. While consumers may compare the obvious features and both of the others will massively outsell Google’s effort, the bigger picture is far more important — the Pixel 2 is in fact the first AI-first phone. It’s a kind of smarter smartphone. Look closely and it’s a fascinating glimpse at what lies ahead for the shiny rectangles that have become so pervasive, yet have clearly hit a hardware development plateau compared to the obvious rapid annual advances of years gone by.

Google SVP of Hardware, Rick Osterloh, made the point during the October 4th unveiling event that the spec war is over. Phones at virtually all price points nowadays have enough processing power, sufficient storage, good cameras, super bright screens and are thin and light.

“The next big innovation will happen at the intersection of AI, Software and Hardware” — Rick Osterloh

Although marketing folk like to label things rather vaguely with the term AI, most of the advances described here are more accurately described as Machine Learning (ML). But consumers won’t care what it’s called, the next generation of smartphones that’s just beginning will be defined by technology enabling new experiences, while becoming ever more seamless.

So what makes the Pixel 2 so noteworthy? Like its predecessor of last year, the most visible AI is the Google Assistant — the cloud-based personal assistant that is ready to answer your questions via voice or text commands. So far, so similar; despite the addition of a ‘to summon feature’, which although it might seem straight-forward, actually relies on ML to tell the difference between intentional squeezes and accidental ones. Other nice features mentioned for the Assistant include closer ties to both the Google Home speakers and the forthcoming Nest video doorbell, where integration will allow your Assistant to announce known people at your door by name. The phone is also constantly listening for ambient music, and identifies tracks for you without having to be connected to the Internet.

But things start to get really interesting when you look at the application of ML to the camera — in two key areas. First, a feature called Lens promises users visual search capabilities that can identify places and objects. Just by pointing the camera at items, it can identify books, artworks, buildings and posters, as well as extract phone numbers and email addresses from signs or flyers. Secondly, a new portrait mode implemented by software (rather than additional costly hardware as on most other phones) allows for professional-looking images with a blurred background. Similar technology is also used to stabilize your previously jerky video recordings.

Outside of the new phones, Google showed additional examples of how important these technologies are becoming in defining the next generation of smartphones and associated accessories. In one of the most compelling new product demonstrations of recent times, the event also introduced the Pixel Bud bluetooth earphones showing real-time conversational translation from Swedish to English. The BBC described them as “something miraculous”. The final product of the night was the Google Clips — a tiny camera that is intelligent enough to decide when to take photos itself.

There are plenty of other things to look forward to as phones evolve in the coming years — features like Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) offer amazing potential. There will be advances in screen technologies, perhaps finally delivering the folding screens we seem to have been promised for years and maybe we’ll even see better battery life.

But there’s no doubt that the technologies somewhat blandly described as AI are the real key to the future. The AI war is just beginning and the Pixel 2 is a first shot that I believe we’ll look back on as significant. After decades of wondering how and when AI might arrive, it seems it’ll simply be appearing straight into our hands, without many people even realising.