Google's Allo chat app hits a downside to AI: Bot must hoard private messages to train itself

Stay in incognito mode to get secure texting


Google has launched its new mobile messaging app Allo today in a bid to challenge Facebook's stronghold in instant messaging.

Allo differs from Google's previous attempts with Hangouts, Google Talk and Google Chat, as its main power lies in artificial intelligence, apparently.

Users will be introduced to a preview edition of the company's AI dogsbody, Google Assistant, which does a job similar to that of Apple's Siri, but isn't yet voice powered in Allo.

Typing @google in a chat will wake up Google Assistant to answer any questions or perform a specific job, such as sending a link to a Youtube video without having to close the chat and open a new app.

A feature known as Smart Reply pops up with suggestions users can reply with quickly while on the move, sending messages such as "Are you on your way?" or just "yup" with a single tap.

Smart Reply has led to Google loosening its privacy protection promises, however. At its IO conference in May, Google said chat logs would be "transiently" stored, but then the ad giant changed its mind and decided that Allo would instead keep copies of all non-incognito chats by default to help its Smart Reply function.

Smart Reply uses machine learning to suggest more genuine responses. Its effectiveness increases when Allo has more information on how people communicate. That's apparently why Google wants to retain unencrypted copies of your messages: it trains its AI to work better with your texts.

You can delete your chat logs, or use end-to-end encrypted incognito-mode messaging to avoid copies of the chats being held in storage.

This slight change has freaked out the more privacy conscious among us: by storing messages in plain text by default, government agents and cops can obtain search warrants and grab suspects' Allo chat logs from Google.

Meanwhile, the ad giant realizes that emojis are a large part of instant messaging, and has created a function that allows users to change the size of text or emojis by sliding the send button up and down.

It has also teamed up with "independent artists and studios around the world to create more than 25 custom sticker packs," including things like a "sloth riding a pizza."

Photos sent across can also be scribbled on – a feature that is popular on the image messaging app Snapchat. Allo uses AI to analyse the content of a picture to come up with appropriate message suggestions.

The company has been quick to assure people that AI is not used to take over communication efforts, but is there to make it easier for people to "express themselves more easily in chat."

Nick Fox, head of Google's consumer communications group, told the Financial Times, "We're not trying to replace human expression. The feature is designed to be more like a spellcheck function to speed and improve the quality of the communication."

Instant messaging is worth big bucks. Facebook wanted to buy Snapchat for $3 billion, an offer that CEO Evan Spiegel turned down. It forked out $22 billion for Whatsapp, the instant messaging platform with a billion users – almost ten times more than Snapchat.

Zuckerberg's empire in social media has spilled out into instant messaging, and Facebook has its own messenger app that is separate from its normal Facebook app, and allows users to see what other people post on the site.

Google is pushing hard with using AI for communication. Yesterday, it announced it had bought API.AI, a Silicon Valley startup that specializes in building tools for natural language understanding in a range of devices. ®


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