Tech

SALTZMAN: It’s all geek to me

You didn’t need to “Google” where the action was in Las Vegas last week, as 30,000 people poured in and out of the Mandalay Bay Convention Center, to attend Google’s annual Cloud Next conference.

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As with previous years, when held at San Francisco’s downtown Moscone Center, Cloud Next ’24 is a global event for the tech titan to show off its wares to developers, IT decision-makers, partners, and journalists.

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As the name suggests, the core focus is Google Cloud, a suite of internet computing services relied upon by several businesses around the world – from startups to enterprises – to run its operations more efficiently and cost-effectively.

It’s based on the same infrastructure as Google’s popular consumer products, like Gmail, YouTube, and Search.

THE PROMISE OF AI

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Much of the buzz this year was tied to Google’s new generative AI (artificial intelligence) platform called Google Gemini (and related platforms like Vertex AI), and how it can empower users to get more done in less time.

“We did an economic impact study and figured out that generative AI can save the average Canadian worker 100 hours per year,” Vice President of Google Cloud Canada Sam Sebastian said in an interview at the conference. “Everyone is so stretched and so stressed at work that if you can take advantage of these tools to get rid of menial tasks, or help with administrative tasks, it could be your superpower.”

It can automate tasks like writing reports, or can be used to create new content, including text, music, images, videos, and more. Gemini can also help developers save time by writing and testing lines of code.

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“We’re lagging significantly on the productivity side, so for Canada, in general, the ability to leverage these tools to be a much more productive nation is a huge opportunity,” Sebastian said.

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Indeed, RBC says Canada is plagued with slow productivity growth, which has gotten worse since the pandemic. Canada is ranked fifth among G7 economies for productivity growth over the past few years.

When asked about competing AI platforms, like OpenAI’s ChatGPT, Sebastian said a consumer should embrace “all of them at this point.”

“It’s a whole new world, it’s fantastic, but Gemini brings to the table the scale of Google, plus we’ve been delivering AI for 10 years, so we have some experience,” he added.

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Earlier last week, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau unveiled plans to allocate $2.4 billion in the upcoming budget to bolster Canada’s AI sector.

HIGHLIGHTS FROM NEXT ’24

While Next ’24 saw hundreds of demos, roundtables, seminars and announcements, the following are some of the more impressive consumer-centric products and services that caught my eye.

Google's latest annual Cloud Next conference was held in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, from April 9-11, 2024.
Google’s latest annual Cloud Next conference was held in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, from April 9-11, 2024. Photo by Supplied

Gmail help: Gemini is becoming embedded in Workspace productivity apps, like Gmail, Sheets, and Slides. In Gmail, for example, you can tap or click to ask Gemini AI to summarize an email thread, suggest responses to an email thread, or find info from previous emails (or your Google Drive files). Discussed at Next ’24, the mobile Gmail app (for Android and iOS) is updating its “Help Me Write” offering that lets you compose and send emails on the go using your voice. Plus, there’s a new “instant polish” feature that uses AI to draft a well-written email using your rough notes. Google says 70% of enterprise users who use Help Me Write in Docs or Gmail end up using Gemini’s suggestions. These new Gmail features are available first to Gemini Enterprise and Gemini Business customers, as well as Google One AI Premium subscribers.

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Google's latest annual Cloud Next conference was held in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, from April 9-11, 2024.
Google’s latest annual Cloud Next conference was held in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, from April 9-11, 2024. Photo by Supplied

Google Vids: Speaking of Workspace, Google Vids was officially unveiled at Next ’24, which lets you type out a descriptive “prompt” and Gemini AI will create a custom video based on what you asked for, perhaps for a presentation you’re working on, or for your website’s homepage. For example, ask it to create a video of a “tall waterfall cascading down a mountain, during a sunrise, and with yellow birds frolicking in and out of the water, as the camera pans down to rocks at the bottom.” This seems similar to OpenAI’s recently unveiled Sora text-to-video platform, but exciting nonetheless. At this point in time, Vids is currently in testing by a small number of Workspace users but is expected to be in “beta” this summer.

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Google Vids was officially unveiled at Google’s latest annual Cloud Next conference was held in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, from April 9-11, 2024.
Google Vids was officially unveiled at Google’s latest annual Cloud Next conference was held in the Mandalay Bay Convention Center in Las Vegas, Nevada, from April 9-11, 2024. Photo by Supplied

Project Starline: A memorable demo at Next ’24 was Project Starline, a very advanced video communication tool – for businesses, initially – where each person in the one-on-one video chat looks like they’re in 3D. While the Google rep was in another room, I chatted with him through my TV screen and he seemed to come right out of it, as he extended his hand to shake mine. It’s crazy realistic. He also handed me an apple and I felt as if I could reach out and take it from him. Starline is meant to bridge distances, so you feel way more “present” in that face-to-face remote conversation than in a flat 2D Zoom window. Starline works with a combination of several high-resolution cameras and custom depth sensors around the TV screen, used to capture a user’s shape and appearance from multiple perspectives, and then it’s stitched together in software (with some help from AI).

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Google’s Project Starline is an advanced video communication tool that makes one-on-one video chats look like they’re in 3D.
Google’s Project Starline is an advanced video communication tool that makes one-on-one video chats look like they’re in 3D. Photo by Supplied

Partners galore: Several big companies were on hand to chat about their use of Google Cloud and Gemini, including Telus Health, whom I sat down with, as they explained how this technology could shave of countless hours of tedious work by doctors and other health care workers, so they could, in theory, see more patients with all that freed up time. On a related note, Bayer announced the health care company will be leveraging Google tools to develop an AI platform for radiologists that will be able to flag potential problems in images, as well as handle mundane tasks, to help make radiologists more efficient throughout the day. And IHG, the hospitality brand behind several hotel and resort chains, says Gemini will curate personalized travel “experiences” in its IHG One Rewards app for its customers, by first asking just a few questions.

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