Google Promises Better Privacy Tools, Smarter AI Assistant

That was one of many products and features unveiled at Google's I/O conference

Google announced updates for its artificially intelligent voice assistant and new privacy tools to give people more control over how they're being tracked on the go or in their own home.

CEO Sundar Pichai kicked off the company's annual developer conference Tuesday, noting that the company wants to do more to stay ahead of "constantly evolving user expectations" on privacy.

In an appeal to concerns about constant location tracking, the company will begin enabling users of its digital maps to cloak their identities to prevent their locations from being recorded.

The company is offering its new "Incognito" privacy control amid face intensifying scrutiny over how much user information technology companies collect and sell for advertising. Facebook dedicated much of its own conference last week to connecting people though more private channels rather than broadly on the social network.

Incognito mode has long been offered on various browsers, including Google's Chrome, although signing in to a Google or other account generally negates it, at least partially.

Apple's Safari and Mozilla's Firefox browsers already have various privacy tools built in to block sites from tracking people's online activity so they can sell ads based on their perceived interests and locations.

The latest version of Google's Android operating system will also alert users when apps may be exploiting access to phone location data. A privacy control will remind users whenever an app that's not currently in use accesses their location, and will allow users to turn that off.

Android Q, as the new operating system is currently known, will also let users restrict app access to location more generally — for instance, by limiting it to times the app is in use. Stephanie Cutherbertson, a senior director for Android, called location data "some of your most personal information" during her presentation on the subject.

Location data is a sore subject for Google. In 2018, an Associated Press investigation found that Google continued storing phone location data even when users turned off a "location history" setting in Android.

The company also said it would make it more clear to users what data is being collected by its Nest line of internet-connected home devices. And it showed off recently announced auto-delete features, which let people set a time limit for how long their location history will be saved before it is deleted.

Pichai also reiterated his intention to come up with more features to help make people's lives easier. The pledge made Tuesday before a crowd of about 7,000 computer programmers at the conference known as I/O is part of Pichai's efforts to diversify Google beyond its roots as a search engine.

Google's search engine remains the main way that the company makes billions of dollars annually by selling digital ads that are targeted at the interests that people reveal through their search requests.

Google's voice assistant will get a series of updates this year, including one that lets it book rental cars and movie tickets.

Google says its assistant will be able to book cars and tickets using online forms on Android phones later this year. The technology behind this, called Duplex, was released to much fanfare last year when Google demonstrated it making a call to book a restaurant reservation.

The Google Assistant will also get shrunk down so that it can work directly on a phone, eliminating the need to communicate with Google's cloud servers to understand some commands. The phone-only capability will be available on new Pixel phones later this year.

The AI is also learning to offer more personal suggestions to users by learning common contact names and addresses.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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