Google is saying goodbye to a longtime Assistant veteran and putting its Assistant engineering vice president on Bard AI chatbot duties in a move that seems to indicate that priorities at the company are now shuffling to AI. The news comes via a leaked internal memo obtained by CNBC. The company hasn’t released a public statement on the matter.
Sissie Hsiao, vice president of Google Assistant’s business unit, sent the memo to employees announcing the reshuffling on Wednesday. Hsiao explained that the Assistant’s longtime vice president of engineering, Jianchang “JC” Mao, would be leaving the company “for personal reasons.” Mao was responsible for helping “shape the Assistant” we now use on Android and Google’s smart home gadgets. The position will be taken over by Google VP Peeyush Ranjan, who previously worked on Google Pay.
In a move that more closely points to a reshuffling of resources to Bard, Google Assistant engineering vice president Amar Subramanya will also now lead engineering for Bard.
According to CNBC, Hsiao wrote to employees:
As the Bard teams continue this work, we want to ensure we continue to support and execute on the opportunities ahead...This year, more than ever, we have been focused on delivery with impact to our users.
Will Google Assistant have Bard-Powered AI?
The potential writing on the wall here is that we eventually end up seeing Bard get integrated into Google Assistant, as the former team grows larger and the latter smaller. Competing voice assistants like Amazon Alexa are already facing a shaky future, and with more money pouring into AI, it does offer up a potential justification to continue supporting Assistant while also playing up Bard’s more practical uses.
So what will happen to the efficacy of the Google Assistant, arguably the most comprehensive smart assistant, if it gets rolled up in Bard’s development? The current AI trend is on the conversational nature of interacting with AI; you ask it questions, it gives answers, and those answers get more detailed and tuned to your needs as you train the algorithm. It’s not unlike the Assistant in its current form, which uses a faux-conversational format but relies on its devs to pre-program how it talks and on me to program it with app integrations and routines.
The potential upside to a Bard-ified Google Assistant is it might become more personalized and natural. It would admittedly be neat to have it respond to me in a manner more attuned to my tastes. Often I’ll throw in flowery language or an aside when I talk to the Assistant about the weather, for example. Instead of telling me it will rain outside, I would enjoy the Google Assistant saying something like, “why don’t you consider wearing your rainboots with your outfit today?” Bard could potentially come up with that kind of language on the fly, whereas Google’s Assistant team has to plan responses like that ahead of time.
However, the issue with an Assistant that comes up with what it’s going to say in the moment is that AI text can lead to inaccuracies and stolen content, all said with total confidence. Imagine asking a Bard-powered assistant to tell you about the news, and it decides to hone in on a particularly untrustworthy source that simply happened to place high in SEO. Bard has already been caught not citing its sources, so it might be difficult to verify the chatbot’s claims.
There’s also the question of whether Bard has any purpose in the smart home. I’m currently using the Assistant as an “input/output” module for interacting with other devices, and don’t want the potential for AI to misinterpret my commands.
It’s also concerning to see that Google is putting a former head of its fintech division at the helm of Assistant rather than someone who might have more of a pedigree in computerized human interaction.
Google already has a reputation for haphazardly killing things off and making unwanted changes. Google Assistant already works great, while Bard is in its second week. While this might be enough to justify shuffling more resources towards Bard, it also has unfortunate overtones of “move fast and break things,” and I’d hate to see Assistant either be made less usable or get killed off in the process.