Sometimes, it’s the little changes to language that give away a company’s ambition. At the unveiling of Google’s new Pixel phones yesterday, CEO Sundar Pichai started the event not by talking about what users can get from Google, but what they can get from their Google. Using artificial intelligence and its new digital assistant, said Pichai, Google’s computing power will be available in every facet of users’ lives. It’ll be seamless and pervasive. "Our goal," he said, "is to build a personal Google for each and every user." Not a single Google that we all can use, but an individualized Google for each and every one of us.
Your own personal Google is more than a digital assistant
This linguistic shift hints at Google's new priorities. Like many other companies, Google is putting more and more resources into its digital assistant — a voice-controlled entity that sits between you and the digital world, managing your life and (hopefully) making it easier. But for the concept to actually work in the way the Google promises, the company needs two things: better artificial intelligence, and more information about your life than you ever knew existed.
For Google, this is an old ambition repackaged with new vigor. Before Google Assistant existed, there was Google Now. Initially released in 2012, it promises to deliver "just the right information at just the right time." Heading to work soon? Google Now will tell you about the traffic. Going out to see a play? Here’s that email you need with your seat reservation. But all this only works if Google has access to the digital imprints of your life. That means your location, calendar, and email; when you got to work, where your work is, and how you get there. It’s the tech world’s most popular transaction: convenience in exchange for information.
But with the launch of Google Assistant and the company’s increased investment in artificial intelligence, the need for this data is becoming ever greater. It’s not just that Assistant can’t tell you about your upcoming events if you don’t let it look at your calendar, but if Google wants to improve how its AI functions, it’s going to need information from all its users. This is because deep learning — the main engine of artificial intelligence — relies on huge amounts of data to function and learn. At the Pixel event, Pichai highlighted Google’s advances in areas like voice and image recognition, but this is partly the result of serendipity. Google just happens to have vast stores of data in these areas. If it wants to improve its AI assistant, it’ll need similar amounts of information there, too. And so we have the shift to individual, multiple Googles.
In an advert played during the Pixel event, here’s how Google described its future AI vision:
"When we started we made this [showing the Google search bar] for everyone, so that everyone could find anything they need among the millions and bazillions of things in the world. Today, it seems like sometimes it’s easy to feel like you need help just with the stuff in your own world. Your photos, phone, videos, calendars, messages, friends, trips, and reservations, and so on and so on. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had some help with all that. Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a Google for your world?"
Again, at its core, this is not a new move, but the change in how Google is presenting its product seems designed to assuage users’ fears about giving up their personal data. A "personal Google" feels to me like a pocket Universe, a separate sphere of reality that isn’t connected to the wider web. Like the fantasy trope of a "bag of holding," it’s easy to carry, it’s miles deep, and it’s got everything I need inside. It’s just for you, says Google, and "anything you share with it is safe and secure."
The key point in Google’s AI promo comes when the unseen narrator (and audience surrogate) asks Google Assistant to remember the code for her bike lock, three-two-six. That’s not information Google needs at all, but it’s where the company wants to be in your life. It wants you to be happy giving over small bits of personal information. It wants to be useful.
Whatever Google knows about you, your government can probably find out, too
So what do you have to fear? Well, not much from Google itself. The company has no interest in just giving away your secrets, but, as it showed when it backtracked on promises for messaging app Allo, its prime concern is improving its product, not privacy. (So, you know, it’s like every other capitalist enterprise out there.) However, by acceding to the sort of data-gathering that Google is asking for, we’re giving tacit approval to a society where low-level surveillance by big tech companies is the norm. And as we learned from the Snowden leaks, what tech companies know about us, governments eventually do, too.
But in many ways, this idea of a "personal Google" is misleading to begin with. When the company’s employees demoed the Google Assistant on stage, the tasks they used — finding a restaurant, making a reservation — could just as easily have been done using the impersonal Google. You’d have to enter a little bit more information, sure, but you’d eventually get the same results. But Google is betting, as it has many times before, that you’ll be willing to give up that info to avoid a little extra wait. You already know how easy Google is to use, so just think how good life will be with your own personal Google.