Google unleashes AI in search, raising hopes for better results and concerns about less web traffic

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. (AP) – Google on Tuesday rolled out a retooled search engine that will favor answers generated by artificial intelligence over links to websites, a change that promises to tap information requests and could disrupt cash flow. to do. internet traffic.

The change announced at Google’s developer conference this week in the United States will begin when hundreds of millions of people will begin periodically viewing conversation summaries generated by the company’s AI technology at the top of the search engine’s results page.

The AI ​​overviews are intended only when Google’s technology determines that they are the fastest and most efficient way to satisfy a user’s curiosity – a solution that is likely to happen with complex subjects or when people are brainstorming or planning. People are likely to see traditional Google website links and ads for simple searches like store recommendations or weather forecasts.

Google began testing AI overview with a small subset of select users a year ago, but the company is now making it one of the staples in its search results in the US before rolling out the feature to other parts of the world. By the end of the year, Google expects the recurring AI insights to be part of its search results for about 1 billion people.

As well as infusing more AI into its flagship search engine, Google used the packed conference held at the Mountain View, California amphitheater near its headquarters to showcase advances in technology that are reshaping business and society.

The next AI steps included more sophisticated analytics powered by Gemini – technology unveiled five months ago – and smarter assistants, or “agents,” including a still-evolving version called “Astra” who will be able to understand, explain and remember things. shown through a camera lens on a smartphone. Google underlined its commitment to AI by bringing in Demis Hassabis, the executive who oversees the technology, to take the stage at its marquee conference for the first time.

The injection of more AI into Google’s search engine represents one of the most dramatic changes the company has made since its inception in the late 1990s. It’s a move that opens the door for further growth and innovation but also threatens to trigger a sea change in web surfing habits.

“This bold and responsible approach is fundamental to delivering on our mission and making AI more helpful for everyone,” Google CEO Sundar Pichai told a group of reporters.

Well aware of how much attention is focused on the technology, Pichai ended a succession of almost two hours of presentation by asking Google’s Gemini model how many times AI was mentioned. The count: 120, and then one more edge was added to the score when Pichai said, “AI,” again.

The increased emphasis on AI will bring new risks to an internet ecosystem that relies heavily on digital advertising as a financial life.

Google will suffer if the AI ​​overview cuts into ads related to its search engine – a business that raked in $175 billion in revenue last year alone. And website publishers – from major media outlets to entrepreneurs and startups that focus on narrower topics – will be hurt if the AI ​​overviews are so informative that they result in fewer clicks on lower-visibility website links still on the results page.

Based on habits that emerged during last year’s testing phase of Google’s AI overview, the de-emphasis on website links could negatively affect about 25% of traffic, said Marc McCollum, chief executive officer innovation at Raptive, which helps about 5,000 websites. publishers make money from their content.

A drop in traffic of that magnitude could translate into billions of dollars in lost ad revenue, a devastating blow delivered by a type of AI technology that would extract information from many of the websites that could lose revenue.

“The relationship between Google and the publishers used to be pretty symbiotic, but add in AI, and what basically happened was Big Tech companies took this creative content and used it to train their AI models ,” McCollum said. “We are now seeing it being used for their own commercial purposes to transfer wealth from small independent businesses to Big Tech.”

But Google found that the AI ​​insights led to people doing even more searches during testing of the technology “because suddenly they can ask questions that were too difficult before,” said Liz Reid, who oversees the company’s search operations, to The Associated Press during an interview. . She declined to provide any specific numbers for link-click volume during the AI ​​overview tests.

“Really, people want to click on the web, even when they have an AI overview,” Reid said. “They start with the AI ​​overview and then they want to dig deeper. We will continue to innovate on the AI ​​overview and also on how we deliver the most useful traffic to the web.”

The increased use of AI technology to summarize information in chatbots such as Google’s Gemini and OpenAI’s ChatGPT over the past 18 months is already raising legal questions about whether the companies behind the services are attracting illegal from copyright material to promote their services. It’s an allegation at the heart of a high-profile lawsuit filed by the New York Times late last year against OpenAI and its biggest backer, Microsoft.

Google’s overview of AI could also trigger lawsuits, especially if they digitize the sale of traffic and ads from websites that believe the company is profiting unfairly from their content. But it’s a risk the company has had to take as the technology advances and is used in rival services like ChatGPT and upstart search engines like Perplexity, said Jim Yu, executive chairman of BrightEdge, which helps sites websites rank higher in Google search results.

“This is definitely the next chapter in the search,” Yu said. “It’s almost like they’re tuning three major variables at once: the quality of search, the flow of traffic in the ecosystem and then the monetization of that traffic. There hasn’t been a moment in the search that’s bigger than this for a long time.”

Outside the amphitheater, several dozen protesters chained themselves to each other and blocked one of the entrances to the conference. The demonstrators focused on a $1.2 billion deal called Project Nimbus that provides artificial intelligence technology to the Israeli government. They claim the system is being deployed lethally in the Gaza war – an allegation Google denies. The demonstration did not seem to affect conference attendance or the enthusiasm of the crowd inside the venue.

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