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Artificial intelligence

Google’s Astra is its first AI-for-everything agent

Users will be able to interact with the AI assistant using audio and video when it launches later this year.

screenshot from Astra demo where user draws a red arrow on the phone screen where the phone's camera is showing the top of a speaker on a desk in the room, and Astra responds by saying the tweeter "produces high-frequency sounds."

Google is set to introduce a new system called Astra later this year and promises that it will be the most powerful, advanced type of AI assistant it’s ever launched. 

The current generation of AI assistants, such as ChatGPT, can retrieve information and offer answers, but that is about it. But this year, Google is rebranding its assistants as more advanced “agents,” which it says could  show reasoning, planning, and memory skills and are able to take multiple steps to execute tasks. 

People will be able to use Astra through their smartphones and possibly desktop computers, but the company is exploring other options too, such as embedding it into smart glasses or other devices, Oriol Vinyals, vice president of research at Google DeepMind, told MIT Technology Review

“We are in very early days [of AI agent development],” Google CEO Sundar Pichai said on a call ahead of Google’s I/O conference today. 

“We’ve always wanted to build a universal agent that will be useful in everyday life,” said Demis Hassabis, the CEO and cofounder of Google DeepMind. “Imagine agents that can see and hear what we do, better understand the context we’re in, and respond quickly in conversation, making the pace and quality of interaction feel much more natural.” That, he says, is what Astra will be. 

Google’s announcement comes a day after competitor OpenAI unveiled its own supercharged AI assistant, GPT-4o. Google DeepMind’s Astra responds to audio and video inputs, much in the same way as GPT-4o (albeit it less flirtatiously). 

In a press demo, a user pointed a smartphone camera and smart glasses at things and asked Astra to explain what they were. When the person pointed the device out the window and asked “What neighborhood do you think I’m in?” the AI system was able to identify King’s Cross, London, site of Google DeepMind’s headquarters. It was also able to say that the person’s glasses were on a desk, having recorded them earlier in the interaction. 

The demo showcases Google DeepMind’s vision of multimodal AI (which can handle multiple types of input—voice, video, text, and so on) working in real time, Vinyals says. 

“We are very excited about, in the future, to be able to really just get closer to the user, assist the user with anything that they want,” he says. Google recently upgraded its artificial-intelligence model Gemini to process even larger amounts of data, an upgrade which helps it handle bigger documents and videos, and have longer conversations. 

Tech companies are in the middle of a fierce competition over AI supremacy, and  AI agents are the latest effort from Big Tech firms to show they are pushing the frontier of development. Agents also play into a narrative by many tech companies, including OpenAI and Google DeepMind, that aim to build artificial general intelligence, a highly hypothetical idea of superintelligent AI systems. 

“Eventually, you’ll have this one agent that really knows you well, can do lots of things for you, and can work across multiple tasks and domains,” says Chirag Shah, a professor at the University of Washington who specializes in online search.

This vision is still aspirational. But today’s announcement should be seen as Google’s attempt to keep up with competitors. And by rushing these products out, Google can collect even more data from its over a billion users on how they are using their models and what works, Shah says.

Google is unveiling many more new AI capabilities beyond agents today. It’s going to integrate AI more deeply into Search through a new feature called AI overviews, which gather information from the internet and package them into short summaries in response to search queries. The feature, which launches today, will initially be available only in the US, with more countries to gain access later. 

This will help speed up the search process and get users more specific answers to more complex, niche questions, says Felix Simon, a research fellow in AI and digital news at the Reuters Institute for Journalism. “I think that’s where Search has always struggled,” he says. 

Another new feature of Google's AI Search offering is better planning. People will soon be able to ask Search to make meal and travel suggestions, for example, much like asking a travel agent to suggest restaurants and hotels. Gemini will be able to help them plan what they need to do or buy to cook recipes, and they will also be able to have conversations with the AI system, asking it to do anything from relatively mundane tasks, such as informing them about the weather forecast, to highly complex ones like helping them prepare for a job interview or an important speech. 

People will also be able to interrupt Gemini midsentence and ask clarifying questions, much as in a real conversation. 

In another move to one-up competitor OpenAI, Google also unveiled Veo, a new video-generating AI system. Veo is able to generate short videos and allows users more control over cinematic styles by understanding prompts like “time lapse” or “aerial shots of a landscape.”

Google has a significant advantage when it comes to training generative video models, because it owns YouTube. It’s already announced collaborations with artists such as Donald Glover and Wycleaf Jean, who are using its technology to produce their work. 

Earlier this year, OpenA’s CTO, Mira Murati, fumbled when asked about whether the company’s model was trained on YouTube data. Douglas Eck, senior research director at Google DeepMind, was also vague about the training data used to create Veo when asked about by MIT Technology Review, but he said that it “may be trained on some YouTube content in accordance with our agreements with YouTube creators.”

On one hand, Google is presenting its generative AI as a tool artists can use to make stuff, but the tools likely get their ability to create that stuff by using material from existing artists, says Shah. AI companies such as Google and OpenAI have faced a slew of lawsuits by writers and artists claiming that their intellectual property has been used without consent or compensation.  

“For artists it’s a double-edged sword,” says Shah. 

Deep Dive

Artificial intelligence

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The next big thing is AI tools that can do more complex tasks. Here’s how they will work.

What is AI?

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How to use AI to plan your next vacation

AI tools can be useful for everything from booking flights to translating menus.

Why Google’s AI Overviews gets things wrong

Google’s new AI search feature is a mess. So why is it telling us to eat rocks and gluey pizza, and can it be fixed?

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