Thursday, May 18, 2017

Google - global boon or scary future menace

Google is a wonderful resource. If you stop and think what modern life would be like without Google Search, Google Maps, Google Play, YouTube, Chrome, Android and Gmail, it doesn't really bear thinking about. Google has become an integral, even essential, part of contemporary Western life.
What I am less sure about is whether I want to see the company go ether down the Artificial Intelligence (AI) rabbit-hole. Because, make no mistake, that is where they are headed. A handy Guardian summary of its latest annual developer conference, Google I/O gives us a useful glimpse into the geek/technofile mindset that dominates in Google's world.
I used to worry about Apple's thinly-disguised plan to rule the world. But these days, Google is leaving Apple in the dust. The seven applications mentioned above all have more than a billion users, and the company is actively pursuing what it refers to as "the next billion" (or two). With this in mind, it's latest mobile operating system, Android O, which is designed to be more battery efficient and provide better protection against viruses and malware, also incorporates Android Go, a pared down of the operating system that uses less data and loads apps more quickly, aimed at the entry level devices and poorer signals still common in many developing countries.
But for the well-served developed world, Google make no bones about moving from a "mobile-first" to an "AI-first" approach. Google Assistant is now considered much superior to Apple's Siri, and is expected to become even more reliable and conversational in the near future, so that many common tasks will be easily achievable using simple voice commands, or what will feel more like natural conversations of chats. Its new Lens visipn-based computing application is also able to recognize a rapidly increasing number of real-life objects, locations, words, etc, and automatically link them to databases, searches, reviews, translations, etc.
The new Google Home app is also expected to start offer it more proactive advice, rather than just responding to specific questions, and can respond differently to up to six different voices in a household depending on heir personal preferences. This is the stuff of science fiction movies made real, but it carries with a whiff of Orwell's Big Brother, or at the very least.spme of the more dystopian elements of the Black Mirror television series. I'm also less than enthused with what I know I know of its new YouTube "super chat" option, in which audience members can pay to have their comments featured prominently during a live streaming event.
As it has already done with airline flights and sports, Google is in the process of aggregating information from job and recruitment agencies like Linkedin, Monster and Carer Builder to provide job listing information without the need to use the websites.
Although it already has its fingers in several aspects of Virual Reality (VR) and Augmented Reality (AR), Google is surprisingly downplaying these sexy technological paths, perhaps due to the rather muted success of its Google Glass smart glasses experiment.
Google is still inventing the future before our very eyes, and a future without its dominant presence is all but inconceivable. But it is all too easy to forget that it is at heart a commercial company, out to make money for its owners. And the risks of hyper-dominant private enterprises are also a popular science fiction trope, and they rarely have happy endings. I'm just not sure I am entirely comfortable with that kind of brave new world.

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