Google shows off far-flung A.I. research projects as calls for regulation mount

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Artificial intelligence and machine learning are crucial to Google and its parent company Alphabet. Recently promoted Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai has been talking about an “AI-first world” since 2016, and the company uses the technology across many of its businesses, from search advertising to self-driving cars.

But regulators are expressing concern about the growing power and lack of understanding about how AI works and what it can do. The European Union is exploring new AI regulation, including a possible temporary ban on the use of facial recognition in public, and New York Rep. Carolyn Maloney, who chairs the House Oversight and Reform Committee, recently suggested that AI regulation could be on the way in the U.S., too. Pichai recently called for “clear-eyed” AI regulation amid a rise in fake videos and abuse of facial recognition technology.

Against this backdrop, the company held an event Tuesday to showcase the positive side of AI by showing some of the long-term projects the company is working on.

“Right now, one of the problems in machine learning is we tend to tackle each problem separately,” said Jeff Dean, head of Google AI, at Google’s San Francisco offices Tuesday. “These long arcs of research are really important to pick fundamental important problems and continue to make progress on them.”

While most of Google’s projects are still years out from broad use, Dean said they are important in moving Google products along.

Here’s a sampling of some of the company’s more speculative and long-term AI projects:

Robotic kittens

Google robotic cat
Google’s robotic kitten helps it understand locomotion.

Wearable sensors

Using braided electronics in soft materials, Google’s artificial intelligence technology can connect gestures with media controls. One prototype showed sweatshirt drawstrings that could be twisted to adjust music volume. The user could pinch the drawstrings to play or pause connected music.

Google sensing fabric
Google’s tech-woven fabric can control music.

Real-time translations

A new transcription feature in Google Translate will convert speech to written transcript and will be available on Android phones at some point in the future. Natural language processing, which is a subset of artificial intelligence, is “of particular interest” to the company, Dean said.

Google Translate currently supports 59 languages.

Detecting eye diseases

Google Health announced new research Tuesday, showing that when the company’s AI is applied to retinal scans, it can help determine if a patient is anemic. It can also detect diabetic eye diseases and glaucoma, Dean said. The company hopes to analyze other diseases in the future.

Google eye tests
Google examines eye health

Tracking endangered species

Google is using sensing tools to track underwater sea life. Using sound detection and artificial intelligence, the company said it can now detect orcas in real time and send messages to harbor managers to help them protect the endangered species.

Google announced Tuesday that it’s teaming up with organization DFO and Rainforest Connection to track critically endangered Southern Resident killer whales in Canada. The company’s also in the early stages of working with the Monterey Bay Aquarium to help detect species in the ocean nearby.

Google AI whale detection
Google’s artificial intelligence can detect certain sea animals based on sounds.

Sign language detection

Google hand gesture detection
Google is working on an AI project that detects sign language.

All in all, the day resembled a science fair more than anything else, but it helped make Google’s point that artificial intelligence can have useful real-world applications.

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