The digital elephant in the room

Last Updated 29 June 2014, 16:24 IST

Google, with its globe-spanning reach, may be trying to do so much that it risks becoming creepy instead of helpful, says Farhad Manjoo.

One way to think of Google is as an extremely helpful, all-knowing, hyper-intelligent executive assistant. Already, it can remind you about your flight, open up your boarding pass when you get to the airport and offer you driving directions to your hotel when you land.

If what the company showed off at a recent event for developers is a true vision of our future, Google’s software will soon reach ever further into our lives, sitting on just about every other device you encounter. The software will be available to help you look up any bit of idle curiosity or accomplish any task, anytime you desire.

It’s an extremely far-reaching agenda - and that may be the company’s problem. For a company whose future depends on people voluntarily handing over their information in return for handy online services, Google’s very ambitions may now stand as its biggest hurdle. Is Google, in its globe-spanning reach, trying to do so much that it risks becoming creepy instead of helpful - the assistant who got too powerful and knows too much?

“I think technology is changing people’s lives a lot, and we’re feeling it,” Larry Page, Google’s co-founder and chief executive, said in an interview at the event in San Francisco on Wednesday.

Page described Android and Chrome, the company’s mobile operating system and Web browser, as a kind of glue that will connect all of the devices we will use in the future. “We’ve been talking about a multiscreen world for a long time,” Page said. “I think you see it culminating in something that’s a great experience across lots of different kinds of devices, from the watch to the TV to the laptop to the tablet to the phone.”

But Page conceded that the novelty and scope of these devices might breed worries among users. “Everyone can tell that their lives are going to be affected, but we don’t quite know how yet, because we’re not using these things - and because of that there’s a lot of uncertainty,” he said.

Google’s keynote event Wednesday, an affair largely geared toward programmers who are fans of Google, was interrupted by protesters. One blamed some of the firm’s executives for evicting local tenants, while another claimed that Google’s recent robotics acquisitions made it dangerous. “You all work for a totalitarian company that builds robots that kill people!” he yelled before being escorted out by security.

Page, who was joined in the interview by Sundar Pichai, the executive in charge of Google’s Android and Chrome software projects, did not seem overly bothered by the outbursts. “We’re in San Francisco, so we expect that,” Page said of the protests. “There’s a rich history of protest in San Francisco.”

Pichai pointed out that the company had introduced initiatives to improve its relationship with city residents. This year, it gave $600,000 to the city to roll out free Wi-Fi service in San Francisco parks. “I think in some ways it’s good that there’s an open debate about it and I think we needed it,” Pichai said. “There’s been a lot of growth and the area is trying to adapt to that growth and that has been a concern.”

More broadly, Page argued that people’s instinctive reactions to new technologies were often negative. Once we see the utility in the new stuff, we often realise that it isn’t as scary as we once thought - and soon may realize we can’t live without it. “In the early days of Street View, this was a huge issue, but it’s not really a huge issue now,” Page said of the company’s project to send a fleet of cars across the globe to snap photographs of public roadways. “People understand it now and it’s very useful,” he said. “And it doesn’t really change your privacy that much. A lot of these things are like that.”

Many of Google’s new services will improve how our computers work by combining personal data and information gathered from sensors to create what the company called “context aware” experiences.

“Today, computing mainly automates things for you, but when we connect all these things, you can truly start assisting people in a more meaningful way,” Pichai said. He suggested a way for Android on people’s smartphones to interact with Android in their cars. “If I go and pick up my kids, it would be good for my car to be aware that my kids have entered the car and change the music to something that’s appropriate for them,” Pichai said.

“Or look at the unlocking that we showed,” Page said, referring to a system in which your computer detects that your watch is nearby, then lets you start using it without typing in a passcode. “It just makes a lot of sense,” Page said. “That’s a big hassle today.”

If these features sound small to you, it may be because Google is in the early stages of exploring the benefits we will get from combining many different devices into a single, hyperaware computing system. It is certainly not alone in that effort, either. The “Internet of Things” has become the latest annoying catchphrase in the industry, and Apple is widely expected to enter the fray soon with a smartwatch.

But Google may be in the best position to make sense of the chaotic, thing-filled Internet. Because Google makes software for a variety of devices, and because it gives that code to third-party manufacturers free, it is well-suited to integrate many different kinds of gadgets made by many different kinds of firms. What is more, for “context aware” computing to become truly useful, our devices must deeply understand our context - and that necessarily involves collecting, analyzing, and acting on boatloads of information about each of us and the world around us. Google excels at that.

Perhaps more important, only Google has Page - and he is completely undaunted by the pushback these technologies may engender. “For me, I’m so excited about the possibilities to improve things for people, my worry would be the opposite,” he said. “We get so worried about these things that we don’t get the benefits.”

He pointed to health care, where regulations make collecting and analyzing data very difficult, even if that data is analyzed anonymously. “Right now we don’t data-mine health care data. If we did we’d probably save 100,000 lives next year,” he said, citing a study of the topic he said he began six months ago.

Saving those lives would be a big benefit. But there’s no doubt that it would also come at a loss of privacy that some might consi­der too great.

(Published 29 June 2014, 16:24 IST)

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