Sat May 28, 2016
When I sat down to watch this year’s I/O keynote, I couldn’t help but recall last year’s incredible gift to the Google faithful - Google Photos. Free unlimited uploads in their full resolution for pictures under 16MP. It was, and still is, an amazing service. It even uploads Live Photos on my iPhone 6S - something that even iCloud’s photostream doesn’t do.
Perhaps a few years from now, Google will hold our bloated photo libraries hostage in exchange for our souls, but so far this hasn’t happened. And maybe when it does happen, we’ll willingly pay the price. It’s so easy to become addicted to the machine learning that organizes our pictures and creates photo albums for us; machine learning that can identify the content of every photo. How could you not love searching for “hugs” to view all those pictures of your loved ones engaged in a warm embrace?
This year there were no surprise gifts, but Google continued to show off its burgeoning AI prowess. A new messaging app was shown with eerie “smart replies” that allows the AI to answer in your stead.
Picture a world where text message conversations are going on in the background between your AI and another person. Or even between two AIs. We’ll be able to abscond all social responsibility by surrendering social conversations to chatbots. In fact, this world is here already with AIs such as Amy, a “personal assistant” who schedules meetings for you. I expect chatbot AIs to proliferate wildly in the next few years, and could even be “the next big thing”. Companies who don’t manage to catch the next wave could find themselves left behind.
Anyway, Google is throwing considerable weight behind its AI efforts, and the results are impressive. However, the AI application in Google Photos seems almost heartwarming compared to this year’s offerings. The messaging app, Allo, will almost certainly be ignored, considering the sheer number of messaging apps available, several of which Google has already put out there and left to stagnate (hangouts anyone?). Ultimately the messaging demo came across like that annoying smart kid in class who tries to entertain others by showing off how clever he is.
A far more interesting application of Google’s AI (simply called Google Assistant) was shown in Google Home - an unabashed ripoff of Amazon’s Echo. Copying an existing product isn’t going to elicit gasps of amazement from the crowd, but competition in this area isn’t a bad thing either. Yet, while the Echo allows you to order replacement toilet paper with a spoken command (from Amazon of course), Google has a grander vision. They already have excellent AI chops, as evident in the “OK Google” voice commands in the mobile space. If done right, Home could conceivably become that omniscient computer in the sky that Star Trek fans are intimately familiar with.
Rumours have already started flying that Apple is also working on an ambient personal assistant to rival Echo - perhaps a revised Apple TV with facial-recognition cameras. But for now, we’ll put Apple speculation aside until WWDC in a couple of weeks.
Sundar Pichai clearly sees AI as an avenue where Google can excel, and I tend to agree with him. No other company has the foundation of search algorithms, machine learning, big data, and access to a treasure trove of user data like Google has. And, very importantly, no other large-scale company is so comfortable being platform agnostic. While true sentient AI is a long way off, they are poised to usher in skynet’s great grandfather.
If this scares you, then it is simply because you are a denizen of the information age whose modus operandi revolves around you as the information gatherer - with you at the helm. It isn’t easy to relinquish control - just as it wasn’t easy for people at the tail end of the industrial age to abandon their reliance on physical manufacturing as their primary economic driver.
And if all this doesn’t scare you, then you’re probably reading this in the 22nd century. Perhaps you are amazed that humans once engaged in independent thought. Perhaps in surrendering the sanctity of your privacy and your body to the machine, you are now at peace because your human toils are over. Perhaps you have evolved into a cyborg with some sort of AI synthesis, like in the Mass Effect 3 ending.
In all seriousness though - regardless of where you stand today, the information age is reaching an end. If you cling to the old ways, you are now an anachronism in the looming AI age. It is still unclear what our roles will be in this new age, but what is clear is that we won’t be controlling the flow and manipulation of information anymore. If knowledge is power, then the machines have already won.