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by Ali Moghadam on 23rd May 2013
Google’s I/O conference gets technology and SEO folks all worked up. It might be for developers, but we’ve all got a stake in Googley goings on. Reading up about it over the weekend, it seems that Google has teased us all with visions of the future – well, the Google-centric version of the future. In Harry’s latest post (Seeing Double – How to Win the Second Screen Revolution), he talks about a future laden with self-driving hover cars and multi-function gesture controlled windows. Sounds cool huh?
Cool as it may be, science fiction is quickly becoming indistinguishable from science fact. In the last decade, high technology has become affordable, mainstream and in constant use. The self-driving car is a reality – with Google at the wheel. Gesture control is here and Xbox Kinect owners can burn off their bingo wings while laying waste to zombies. We’re living in the future we all saw in movies as kids – all that’s missing are those expanding pizzas from Back to the Future part II. Oh and the time travelling hover car.
Okay, lots of things (most of which hover) are yet to be realised. But we live in a time where a vast and ever growing number of people own devices that are just millimetres thick, connected to a global network and have access to virtually all of humankind’s information. Even science fiction struggled to realise this concept accurately (Star Trek’s communicators were inch-thick flip phones that could do little more than a two way radio). These devices are not limited to the super-rich or society’s upper echelons; everyone seems to be packing a smartphone in 2013.
Compared to the situation circa 2000, which wasn’t all that long ago (scarily recent if you ask me), a decent personal computer consisted of a 600 MHz processor, 128MB of RAM and a few Gigabytes of storage. And those turn of the millennium powerhouses weren’t cheap. Today, a Raspberry Pi matches and even exceeds them in a package the size of a credit card, for around £20. And smartphones outperform those early 21st century relics by orders of magnitude. Future technology will reach a point where content can’t keep up. Every year, technology gets faster. It gets more compact and efficient. And now, it wants to live on your face.
It turns out that your pocket is just too far away from your face, and that using a device with your hands is just plain excruciating. Project Glass is a Google venture so vast, ground breaking and controversial that it seems odd to have all but excluded the first ever ‘human being upgrade’ from the keynote at I/O. Commentators note that Glass did seem to overtake the second day of the conference, attracting more attention than any other of Google’s offerings.
Glass is future vision number one and Google has just released it into the wild. It looks like the big G has taken a step back from its baby to let it fend for itself and to see how people react to it. And at the moment, a lot of people are calling Google’s baby ugly. Privacy advocates, technophobes, conspiracy theorists and naysayers have all chimed in to point out the obvious flaws and more concerning features of Glass.
It kind of reminds me of an episode of Futurama where Fry (the series’ protagonist from the year 2000, living in the year 3000) experiences advertising in his dreams for underpants. The dream is a mish-mash of popular nightmare scenarios, including one where he isn’t wearing any pants. The advertisement kicks in, selling his subconscious a dashing pair of Lightspeed Briefs. It’s funny in Futurama, but would it be as funny in reality? Are there places where adverts just shouldn’t be?
So when it comes to Glass, the divide is clear – those who say “hell no” and those who say “hell yes”. Indifference doesn’t appear to be an option. My thoughts go like this:
Glass and things like it were always going to happen one day, regardless. Now that technology allows it to happen, it will happen and it will happen soon. But, I honestly don’t believe Glass will take off – at least not in our generation – because it oversteps a boundary that most people, tech savvy or not, perceive as the last straw. It’s the first step into integration with machines. It runs the risk of stigmatising users and casting clear cultural divides. It has the potential to be used for “evil” and its motives are still unclear – it provides the same information and still requires a paired mobile device to work, it just presents information differently.
The only way it will gain acceptance is if society as a whole allows it to happen. And the only way that will happen is if the product can be made desirable to a mass audience. Until then, there’s going to be a split; users of Glass might find themselves uncomfortable wearing them, while others feel uncomfortable around users.
Of course, mine is just one mind in a sea of billions. When I say it won’t take off, I don’t mean nobody will use it. I’m sure there will be users. While I personally wouldn’t feel comfortable wearing my phone, camera and personal organiser on my face, others will – I just can’t see it becoming mainstream.
So the buzz around Glass has been loud. So loud that Google doesn’t need or want to talk about it. Hardware was not Google’s focus and 2013 is not going to be the year of wearable technology, even if Glass does make a general release by the end of the year. This year’s focus is all about services – making Google whole, not individual elements loosely tied together under the Google umbrella.
Google Play will tie in to Google+ and let you play games across platforms and devices – and not just Android devices. Play your favourite game on the train home on your phone, then beat the final boss on your iPad at home. Google Play Music stands up against Spotify as a subscription-based music delivery system, allowing more than just streaming – you can upload your own libraries. Maps on mobiles and desktops will become more real-time and crucially more social, with reviews by people you know giving preferred results for places to go.
And all of it orbits the central hub of Google+, which took on a new interface design – something of a marriage between Facebook and Pinterest that matches the look and feel of its mobile counterpart. There are some subtle functionality adjustments that hint towards what Google wants to achieve. For example, instead of refreshing your Google+ feed on top of your current position down the list, it presents you with a refresh button, telling you how many new stories there are. It’s a little bit annoying, especially for someone like me who enjoyed the logical, chronological layout of Google+ before the facelift.
The effect is that I spend more time on it. Facebook clocked on to this time sapping feature too, with the timeline. Google wants users to hang around for longer, to make Google more than page one of the internet. Don’t just do a search and disappear into the ether, come back and tell your friends about it. Listen to some tunes while you play Angry Birds or browse for restaurants based on what rating your buddies gave them. It all sounds vaguely Facebook graph search, but I guess that’s what happens when you’ve tapped out as much personal information as these firms have – you start giving people a socially motivated direction.
Google products that exist now are evolving. Google wants a more coherent, socially driven family of services and less of a hodge-podge cluster of separate products. In doing this, it is more likely they will keep users on Google for longer. And the longer you’re using Google, the longer you’re looking at (and importantly clicking on) ads. And with all that is being offered, things are looking mighty tempting. Google’s realm can offer everything you want – you need never leave. So where does that leave search?
According to Google, “search as we know it is over”. Well it’s clearly not, because I’ve used my fair share of search engines today and I will again tomorrow. But as the voice search technology used in Glass moves to desktop, we see the beginnings of the semantic web trying to take shape. While search is kind of at a standstill for now, we know where Google is aiming. Brin and Page once stated that “…the ultimate search engine would be smart. It would be artificial intelligence”.
And after announcing partnership with NASA to investigate and implement experiments in quantum computing, artificial intelligence looks to be Google’s ultimate goal. In fact, they believe a human brain will be simulated before the end of the next decade. The kind of power that NASA’s quantum computing will deliver is nothing without data. And no organisation on Earth has more human data than Google.
The combination of decades of human input and near limitless computing power could bring about a self-aware digital species in a future not too far from now. That’s the long game. In the shorter term, Google wants you to be able to ask it something and get a response indistinguishable from a human response. A global Turing test of sorts. A full conversation with intelligent answers and insight – all delivered immediately by voice.
Finally, a friend! Well assuming the future Googlebots are good company, we’re looking at a very interesting future for search, technology and society. I’d love to know how these visions of the future sit with you – are you worried, excited or is it all just a distraction from reality? Drop your answers in the comments box…
Molecular Thoughts - courtesy of BigStock