Throughout the course of the week, usually on a daily basis, I collect articles, news blurbs and what I call “signs from the future.” Mostly they fall into categories such as design fiction, technology, society, future, theology, and philosophy. I use this content sometimes for this blog, possibly for a lecture but most often for additional research as part of scholarly papers and presentations that are a matter of course as a professor. I have to weigh what goes into the blog because most of these topics could easily become full-blown papers. Of course, the thing with scholarly writing is that most publications demand exclusivity on publishing your ideas. Essentially, that means that it becomes difficult to repurpose anything I write here for something with more gravitas. One of the subjects that are of growing interest to me is Google. Not the search engine, per se, rather the technological mega-corp. It has the potential to be just such a paper, so even though there is a lot to say, I’m going to land on only a few key points.
A ubiquitous giant in the world of the Internet, Google has some of the most powerful algorithms, stores your most personal information, and is working on many of the most advanced technologies in the world. They try very hard to be soft-spoken, and low-key, but it belies their enormous power.
Most of us would agree that technology has provided some marvelous benefits to society especially in the realms of medicine, safety, education and other socially beneficial applications. Things like artificial knees, cochlear implants, air bags (when they don’t accidentally kill you), and instantaneous access to the world’s libraries have made life-changing improvements. Needless to say, especially if you have read my blog for any amount of time, technology also can have a downside. We may see greater yields from our agricultural efforts, but technological advancements also pump needless hormones into the populace, create sketchy GMO foodstuffs and manipulate farmers into planting them. We all know the problems associated with automobile emissions, atomic energy, chemotherapy and texting while driving. These problems are the obvious stuff. What is perhaps more sinister are the technologies we adopt that work quietly in the background to change us. Most of them we are unaware of until, one day, we are almost surprised to see how we have changed, and maybe we don’t like it. Google strikes me as a potential contributor in this latter arena. A recent article from The Guardian, entitled “Where is Google Taking Us?” looks at some of their most altruistic technologies (the ones they allowed the author to see). The author, Tim Adams, brought forward some interesting quotes from key players at Google. When discussing how Google would spend some $62 million in cash that it had amassed, Larry Page, one of the company’s co-founders asked,
“How do we use all these resources… and have a much more positive impact on the world?”
There’s nothing wrong with that question. It’s the kind of question that you would want a billionaire asking. My question is, “What does positive mean, and who decides what is and what isn’t?” In this case, it’s Google. The next quote comes from Sundar Pichai. With so many possibilities that this kind of wealth affords, Adams asked how they stay focused on what to do next.
“’Focus on the user and all else follows…We call it the toothbrush test,’ Pichai says, ‘we want to concentrate our efforts on things that billions of people use on a daily basis.’”
The statement sounds like savvy marketing. He is also talking about the most innate aspects of our everyday behavior. And so that I don’t turn this into an academic paper, here is one more quote. This time the author is talking to Dmitri Dolgov, principal engineer for Google Self-Driving Cars. For the whole idea to work, that is, the car reacting like a human would, only better, it has to think.
“Our maps have information stored and as the car drives around it builds up another local map with its sensors and aligns one to the other – that gives us a location accuracy of a centimetre or two. Beyond that, we are making huge numbers of probabilistic calculations every second.”
It’s the last line that we might want to ponder. Predictive algorithms are what artificial intelligence is all about, the kind of technology that plugs-in to a whole host of different applications from predicting your behavior to your abilities. If we don’t want to have to remember to check the oil, there is a light that reminds us. If we don’t want to have to remember somebody’s name, there is a facial recognition algorithm to remember for us. If my wearable detects that I am stressed, it can remind me to take a deep breath. If I am out for a walk, maybe something should mention all the things I could buy while I’m out (as well as what I am out of).
Here’s what I think about. It seems to me that we are amassing two lists: the things we don’t want to think about, and the things we do. Folks like Google are adding things to Column A, and it seems to be getting longer all the time. My concern is whether we will have anything left in Column B.