AI Lets Microsoft Target Google And Google Target Amazon

Artificial intelligence could revive long-dormant Bing and supercharge online shopping.

AI Lets Microsoft Target Google and Google Target Amazon
AI Lets Microsoft Target Google and Google Target Amazon

Google has spent the past 25 years teaching us to speak its idiom. If you barked at your spouse “weather Des Moines tomorrow,” you’d be unlikely to elicit anything resembling a helpful response. Yet that’s the way we’ve learned to engage with Google Search. Now, with the advent of a host of artificial intelligence technologies, the search giant wants to teach the world a whole new way of talking to computers.

At Google I/O—the company’s annual developer conference, held on May 10 near its headquarters in Mountain View, California—we caught our first glimpse of its vision for integrating generative AI into search. It’s a big deal, not least because Microsoft Corp. has painted a target on Google’s back. Through its investment in ChatGPT creator OpenAI, Microsoft has been integrating AI tools into its own search engine, Bing. For the first time in two decades, it’s started to look as though there might be a meaningful challenge to Google’s $163 billion search business.

More than that, it was unclear what a generative AI-led approach to search would mean for Google’s ability to serve ads, from which that business derives all its revenue. After all, it’s the imperfection of search that creates space for advertisements: You’re served a diverse menu of choices. If you received the perfect result each time, there would be less scope for Google to make money by giving you results someone else might have paid for.

Which is what made the 12 minutes of I/O dedicated to search so significant. Very quickly, Cathy Edwards, a vice president for engineering, was showing that generative AI can help you buy stuff—in her example, a commuter bike. The prompt she demonstrated was “good bike for a 5-mile commute with hills.” The idiom might have sounded similar to the way we’d typically engage with Google, but it’s got a level of complexity with which we’d never typically challenge the search engine. The experimental product returned a few possibilities and potential follow-up questions.

Ostensibly, this was just another example of how AI, paired with Google’s vast data sets, can create a pretty cool customer experience. But Google has been trying to crack e-commerce for years: A sizable proportion of online shopping searches start at Amazon, completely circumventing Google. It’s been one of the company’s real weaknesses. Now it’s signaling that AI, where Inc. appears to lag Google technologically, offers it a chance to catch up. While the conversation focuses on Google’s battle with Microsoft, it heralds an impending fight with Amazon, too.

For all of AI’s amazing potential, the companies leading the charge technologically have the ability to set the parameters for how we engage with it, to dictate the nature of the conversation. And, as with the last generation of the web, it looks like they really want to use it to sell us more stuff.

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