Google reshuffles virtual assistant unit with focus on Bard A.I. technology

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Google CEO Sundar Pichai speaks on stage during the annual Google I/O developers conference in Mountain View, California, May 8, 2018.
Stephen Lam | Reuters

Google is reshuffling the reporting structure of its virtual assistant unit — called Assistant — to focus more on Bard, the company’s new artificial intelligence chat technology.

In a memo to employees on Wednesday, titled “Changes to Assistant and Bard teams,” Sissie Hsiao, vice president and lead of Google Assistant’s business unit, announced changes to the organization that show the unit heavily prioritizing Bard.

Jianchang “JC” Mao, who reported directly to Hsiao, will be leaving the company for personal reasons, according to the memo, which was viewed by CNBC. Mao held the position of vice president of engineering for Google Assistant and “helped shape the Assistant we have today,” Hsiao wrote.

Taking Mao’s place will be 16-year Google veteran Peeyush Ranjan, who most recently held the title of vice president in Google’s commerce organization, overseeing payments.

“As the Bard teams continues this work, we want to ensure we continue to support and execute on the opportunities ahead,” Hsiao said in the email. “This year, more than ever, we have been focused on delivery with impact to our users.”

Google Assistant is an AI-powered virtual assistant software application and language-processing software similar to Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa. Often in the form of speech recognition, Assistant is used on mobile and home devices, including its Pixel smartphone and in Nest smart speakers and devices. It’s also used in smart watches, smart displays, TVs and in vehicles through Android Auto platform.

The new leadership changes suggest that the Assistant organization may be planning on integrating Bard technology into similar products in the future.

Last week, Google launched its ChatGPT competitor Bard to the public, calling it “an experiment,” starting with tests in the U.S. and the U.K. after CNBC reported the product testing in January. CNBC previously reported that the company pulled team members from various areas around the company to focus on Bard as a part of a “code red” effort.

As part of Wednesday’s change, Google Assistant engineering vice president Amar Subramanya will now lead engineering for the Bard team, the email said. Trevor Strohman, who previously led engineering efforts for Bard, will continue as an “Area Tech Lead” for Bard, reporting to Hsiao.

However, there’s still a big question regarding how the technology can be used to generate revenue.

Executives have hinted at using it as a search product but Bard leads more recently tried to downplay that use case to employees even as the company scrambled to respond to Microsoft’s Bing Chat-GPT integration.

Google didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.

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