Google as our “Constant Companion”

July 20th, 2013

In the future, Google wants to become our pervasive companion, always having a dialogue with us. Or so reprots this interesting report from The Independent:

Trust is everything to Google. It stands on the verge of a technological breakthrough that can transform its relationship with us. Already, it is universally recognised as the world leader in searching for information. It handles around 90 per cent of internet searches in the UK: when we want to know something, most of us turn to Google. But it wants more – it wants to become our constant companion.

Of course, the first step in this process is Google Glass:

The first stage of this new level of intimacy is Google Glass, which I am invited to trial as part of a briefing on the company’s future plans. . . . The idea of Google Glass is that you can walk down busy streets receiving helpful facts – without needing to take your mobile phone from your pocket. It could end the urban hazard of pedestrians staring at their mobiles instead of looking where they’re going.

What’s next? Constant presence.

In Building 43 of the Googleplex, Ben Gomes talks with barely concealed excitement about a “new epoch”. A Google fellow and the company’s Vice President of Search he has been working on these technologies for 14 years. “[Knowledge Graph] is everything you have at some point asked a query about – plus everything that everyone else has thought of!” he exclaims. “It’s a meld of all the world’s interests and information needs.”

The future, he says, is for this enormous resource to be “present everywhere”.

What is the ultimate destination? A chip in your head, of course

Soon Google hopes to have the ubiquitous presence of a personal assistant that never stops working, capable of conversing naturally in any language. Ultimately, as Page and co-founder Sergey Brin have asserted, the goal is to insert a chip inside your head for the most effortless search engine imaginable. Some will find this prospect exciting. Others might want to call for Dick Tracy.

Where will it end? Gomes agrees that a chip embedded in the brain is far from a sci-fi fantasy. “Already people are beginning to experiment with handicapped people for manoeuvring their wheelchairs,” he says. “They are getting a few senses of direction with the wheelchair but getting from there to actual words is a long ways off. We have to do this in the brain a lot better to make that interaction possible. We have impatience for that to happen but the pieces of technology have to develop.”

The article also makes an interesting point about how quickly this technology evolved.

The rapid evolution of mobile technology has brought new opportunities to a business generating annual revenue in excess of $50bn (£33.7bn). It began, just 15 years ago, as a service that enabled you to type a request into a personal computer and be given links to associated websites. Things have rather moved on.

This discussion brings to mind Tim Wu’s recent article, titled Machine Speech. Tim discusses whether advanced search engines, which he calls “virtual concierges,” can be regulated, consistent with the First Amendment.

To answer the question we must distinguish between two types of recom- mendation tools. Some concierge or recommendation programs rely on nothing more than data already provided by the user to deliver a “recom- mendation,” which is really nothing more than reminding the user what she already wants. These are tools unlikely to be protected. In contrast, it is also possible to imagine an intelligent concierge program that would be more distinctly opinionated and therefore protected. Imagine a program that embodied the programmer’s deeply held views as to the best restaurants in New York. The program might reflect snobbish disregard of “New American” cooking and a celebration of French Cuisine above all else. Asked for recommendations, this program would return not simply a mechanical projection based on the user’s previous choices, but rather a true recommen- dation based on the opinions, and indeed the prejudices, of the programmer.

Of course, this raises many of the issues of liability I have addressed elsewhere.

When, if at all, do laws affecting such recommenders or concierges trigger First Amendment scrutiny? Imagine, for example, that a concierge gave advice that led to some injury. Would a product liability lawsuit be subject to First Amendment scrutiny? We might first consider what the law has done with the human equiva- lents. On the one hand, private advice, especially communications in the course of professional services, is treated as a form of functional communi- cation and doesn’t usually trigger First Amendment protection.172 This is why a doctor may be liable for malpractice if he gives a very bad or grossly erroneous diagnosis. On the other hand, if a doctor writes a book that happens to be wrong about medical facts, his efforts are likely nonetheless to be protected by the First Amendment against product liability law.173

The First Amendment will soon become even more important, as Google has consistently raised free speech as a defense to just about any suit against their algorithms.