Google has announced its first artificial intelligence research lab outside the US in Switzerland.
Headed by Emmanuel Mogenet, Google Research Europe will be based at the search giant’s Zurich office and focus on applying machine learning to its products including Search, Photos, and the newly announced Assistant.
Google insiders believe the team will be at least a few hundred strong. “We want to redress the balance of expertise between Mountain View [Google’s US HQ] and Europe,” Mr Mogenet said.
Mr Mogenet, who sold his previous company to Apple in 2002, has been tasked with hiring as many European researchers with machine learning expertise as he can find. “The only limitation is talent,” he said.
The new team has a distinct goal: to invent the future of Search, a voice-activated, human-like entity that can answer any query intelligently. “We are building the ultimate assistant. In two years, you can expect Google to become a personal life assistant across multiple surfaces, including your phone, Google Home, even cars,” Mr Mogenet said.
Some of Google’s best-known products are already shaped by machine learning – the ability of computers to spot patterns in large datasets and learn by example. For instance, with Google Photos you could search for “cardigan corgi” or “passport” or “birthday celebrations 2014” and the app will bring up the relevant photos.
Machine learning also powers the Smart Reply feature in Gmail which auto-suggests responses based on the text or photos in an email. Smart Reply, built in Google Zurich, is now used in over 10pc of all emails sent from Google’s Inbox app.
The big goal now is to apply it to Search, Google’s crown jewel. In 2015, more Google searches took place on mobile phones than desktops for the first time. Voice searches also grew faster than text-based searches, helped by a better error rate. Voice made up roughly 20pc of all mobile searches, according to Behshad Behzadi, director of conversational search at Google.
During a demo of the new voice-based Google Assistant, Mr Behzadi showed off the AI’s understanding of context. For instance, asking “What are the rides at Europa Park?” followed by, “What are the height restrictions on Blue Fire?” and “How fast is it?” will return correct results without you having to clarify what Blue Fire, or “it” is.
There is currently a global race for AI talent, with major companies such as Facebook, Apple, Twitter and Amazon buying up AI start-ups globally, and particularly in Britain. Google made its ambitions clear in 2014 with its £400m acquisition of DeepMind, a British AI start-up with no commercial products, which has hired at least 250 experts in London.
With its new Zurich team, the Californian company is amassing a formidable concentration of AI talent in Europe. “I can’t quantify our investment into AI, but it will eventually be embedded in everything,” Eric Schmidt, chairman of Google parent Alphabet, said. “They’re not in cul-de-sacs, they’re building things that will touch millions and millions of people.”
Feature image credit: Flickr