May 19, 2013
Google‘s big keynote at its I/O developers conference this week wore me out.
Not because it lasted a grueling three hours and fifty minutes, but because of what was announced. With every new product update, every new feature, every new virtual service, it became more and more clear that Google isn’t just a search company that makes loads of cash by showing you ads. It’s creeping into every aspect of our digital, physical, and private lives at an exponential rate.
I’m still trying to wrap my mind around it.
Google isn’t just the backbone of the Internet anymore. It’s rapidly becoming the backbone of your entire life, all thanks to data you’re voluntarily giving up to a private company based on your Web searches, photos, Gmail messages, and more.
After spending three days at I/O this week, it became more apparent than ever that unless millions (billions?) of people suddenly change their mind and start using alternative tech tools, or unless the government steps in waving the anti-trust banner, our lives, our history, and our personal wealth could be managed by one company –– Google.
It’s the most apparent in Google Now, a voice-powered personal assistant that launched on Android phones last year. At I/O, it became even more clear that Google no longer sees search as returning a list of 10 or 20 relevant links when you type in a query. Google Now is much more than that. It’s the embodiment of that geeky dream of a “Star Trek Computer,” an intelligent machine that understands natural language and real-world context to assist you before you even know you need assistance.
Google Now scans your email and knows when your Amazon package is arriving. It knows what sports scores to show you based on the teams you’ve searched for. It knows what stock prices to show you based on the companies you search for. It scans your calendar and reminds you when to leave to make your appointment on time. And all that data is delivered to you without you having to ask.
Following I/O, Google Now is more prevalent than before. Google recently launched the app on iPhones and iPads, and it’s coming to the desktop soon if you use the Chrome Web browser. Next year, you’ll be wearing Google Now on your face if you buy Google Glass.
Then there are photos, arguably the most personal things you share online. Now, Google scans every single one you upload to Google+. It can learn what your family members look like and group photos of them into albums automatically. It can tell if your subjects are smiling. If they’re not smiling, it can stitch their faces in from other images where they are and create the perfect photo for you. It knows if you’re taking pictures of mountains or puppies or buildings or famous landmarks and group your photo albums together accordingly.
It’s creepy and magical at the same time.
Google Glass didn’t get any stage time during the I/O keynote, but it was still a significant part of the event. You couldn’t go anywhere –– the press room, the cafeteria, the restroom –– without someone’s computerized headgear staring back at you. It was oddly discomforting knowing that thousands of people had the ability to take a photo or video of you just by winking at their Glass.
It’s far too early to tell if Glass will take off when it’s ready for the general public, but if it does, then it’ll be just another example of how Google has reached into the physical space to take over everything we see and do.
I could go on and on, but this week I learned that Google has its hand in almost every aspect day-to-day life and its penetration is only accelerating.
Android is growing like crazy with 900 million activations to date, and it has the potential to connect billions of people to the Internet for the first time in the next few years. Google Maps has a new look, and it’s turned into a snappy way to find places to visit and get recommendations. Gmail is turning into a money transfer service. I can only imagine what Google co-founder Sergey Brin is working on at Google X, the company’s lab for futuristic products.
The question to ask now is, are we OK with this? Does the benefit of faster search, better transportation, and automated news updates outweigh giving up so much of our lives to a computer run by a private company that mines our data?
They’re issues we’d have to tackle gradually, but hopefully not before Google advances faster than we can adapt.