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Google’s Long History with Conversational AI

The popularity of generative AI technology has been growing, with ChatGPT and Bing AI leading the way. However, before these technologies became popular, corporations invested years of research and development into making them happen. Google was no exception, and introduced their LaMDA-powered Bard AI as a continuation of their years of work in the field. Interestingly, it seems that Google has been playing around with conversational AIs since 2020, long before ChatGPT became well known.

Google’s Early Development of Meena

The Wall Street Journal (via 9to5Google) reported that Google had been internally considering launching a chatbot in limited capacity to the public. Called Meena, it eventually evolved into LaMDA. The creators of Meena urged Google executives to integrate their technology into products including search and Google Assistant. However, leadership had concerns that the chatbot didn’t meet the company’s policies on AI safety and fairness. Microsoft’s venture into conversational AI with on Twitter in 2017, which resulted in the chatbot adopting highly offensive tendencies, added to these concerns.

Ethical Concerns at Google

There have been ethical concerns over how research was progressing at Google, leading to conflicts between personnel and management. Notable dismissals, including that of Dr. Timnit Gebru, a prominent Black voice on the subject, in 2020, and Blake Lemoine, who infamously dubbed LaMDA as “sentient,” last year, resulted from these conflicts.

The Future of Conversational AI at Google

The creators of Meena, Daniel De Freitas and Noam Shazeer, left Google in 2021 to start their own AI company. While prototypes are promising, a Google spokesperson told the Journal that reliable products that are safe for the public to use are still a long way off.

Google may have had a considerable head start against OpenAI and Microsoft if it launched Meena years ago. Whether that ended up being the right decision or not, the company now has to catch up with Bard. Major announcements are expected at I/O 2023, starting May 10.