Why Google Home Will Change the World

Much has recently been written about Google Home, the little vase-like cylinder that started landing in consumers’ hands only a week or so ago. Home’s mandate sounds simple enough in theory — listen to a room for commands or queries, then respond by voice and/or with appropriate actions.

What hasn’t been much discussed however, is how the Home ecosystem is going to change for the better the lives of millions to billions of people over time, in ways that most of us couldn’t even imagine today. It will drastically improve the lives of vast numbers of persons with visual and/or motor impairments, but ultimately will dramatically and positively affect the lives of everyone else as well.

Home isn’t the first device to offer this technology segment — nor is it the least expensive — Amazon came earlier and has a more limited version that is cheaper than Home (and a model more expensive than Home as well).

But while Amazon’s device seems to have been designed with buying stuff on Amazon as its primary functionality, Google’s Home — backed by Google’s enormously more capable corpus of information, accurate speech recognition, and AI capabilities, stands to quickly evolve to far outpace Amazon’s offering along all vectors.

This is a truth even if we leave aside the six-month free subscription to Google’s excellent ad-free “YouTube Red/Google Play Music” — which Google included with my Home shipment here in the USA, knowing that once you’ve tasted the ability to play essentially any music and any YouTube videos at any time just by speaking to the air, you’ll have a difficult time living without it. I’ve had Home for a week and I’m finally listening to great music of all genres again — I know that I’ll be subscribing when my free term to that package runs out.

You can dig around a bit and easily find a multitude of reviews that discuss specifics of what Home does and how you use it, so I’m not going to spend time on that here, other than to note that like much advanced technology that is simple to operate, the devilishly complex hardware and software design aspects won’t be suspected or understood by most users — nor is there typically a need for them to do so.

But what I’d like to ponder here is why this kind of technology is so revolutionary and why it will change our world.

Throughout human history, pretty much any time you wanted information, you had to physically go to it in one way or another. Dig out the scroll. Locate the book. Sit down at the computer. Grab the smartphone.

The Google Home ecosystem is a sea change. It’s fundamentally different in a way that is much more of a giant leap than the incremental steps we usually experience with technology.

Because for the first time in most of our experiences, rather than having to go to the information, the information is all around us, in a remarkably ambient kind of way.

Whether you’re sitting at a desk at noon or in bed sleepless in the middle of the night, you have but to verbally express your query or command, and the answers, the results, are immediately rendered back to you. (Actually, you first speak the “hotword” — currently either “Hey Google” or “OK Google” — followed by your command or query. Home listens locally for the hotword and only sends your following utterance up to Google for analysis when the hotword triggers — which is also indicated by lights on the Home unit itself. There’s also a switch on the back of the device that will disable the microphone completely.)

It’s difficult to really express how different this is from every other technology-based information experience. In a matter of hours of usage, one quickly begins to think of Home as a kind of friendly ethereal entity at your command, utterly passive until invoked. It becomes very natural to use — the rapid speed of adaptation to using Home is perhaps not so remarkable when you consider that speech is the human animal’s primary evolved mode of communications. Speech works with other humans, to some extent with our pets and other animals — and it definitely works with Google Home.

Most of the kinds of commands and queries that you can give to Home can also be given to your smartphone running Google’s services — in fact they both basically access the same underlying “Google Assistant” systems.

But when (for example) information and music are available at any time, at the spur of the moment, for any need or whim — just by speaking wherever you happen to be in a room and no matter the time of day — it’s really an utterly different emotional effect.

And it’s an experience that can easily make one realize that the promised 21st century really has now arrived, even if we still don’t have the flying cars.

The sense of science fiction come to life is palpable.

The Google teams who created this tech have made no secret of the fact that the computers of “Star Trek” have been one of their key inspirations.

There are various even earlier scifi examples as well, such as the so-called “City Fathers” computers in James Blish’s “Cities in Flight” novels. 

It’s obvious how Google Home technology can assist the blind, persons with other visual impairments, and a wide variety of individuals with mobility restrictions.

Home’s utility in the face of simple aging (and let’s face it, we’re all either aging or dead) is also immense. As I noted back in As We Age, Smartphones Don’t Make Us Stupid — They’re Our Saviors, portable information aids can be of great value as we get older.

But Home’s “always available” nature takes this to an entirely new and higher level.

The time will come when new homes will be built with such systems designed directly into their walls, and when people may feel a bit naked in locations where such capabilities are not available. And in fact, in the future this may be the only way that we’ll be able to cope with the flood of new and often complex information that is becoming ever more present in our daily lives.

Perhaps most telling of all is the fact that these systems — as highly capable as they are right now — are only at the bare beginnings of their evolution, an evolution that will reshape the very nature of the relationship between mankind and access to information.

If you’re interested in learning more about all this, you’re invited to join my related Google+ Community which is covering a wide range of associated topics.

Indeed — we really are living in the 21st century!

I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!

Google Search Results and Fact Checking

With so many discussions now raging regarding the impacts of misinformation on the Internet — including in relation to the 2016 election — I’m reposting below a blog item of mine from 17 June 2007 — “Extending Google Blacklists for Dispute Resolutions” — that may perhaps still be considered relevant today.

At that time, I was framing this overall issue in terms of disputed search results — I would later propose this kind of framework as a possible alternative to the horrific EU “Right To Be Forgotten” censorship concept.

We now would likely include most of these issues under the broader umbrella of “fact checking” concepts.

Extending Google Blacklists for Dispute Resolutions
(Original posting date: June 17, 2007)

Greetings. In a very recent blog item, I discussed some issues regarding search engine dispute resolution, and posed some questions about the possibility of “dispute links” being displayed with search results to indicate serious disputes regarding the accuracy of particular pages, especially in cases of court-determined defamation and the like.

While many people appear to support this concept in principle, the potential operational logistics are of significant concern. As I originally acknowledged, it’s a complex and tough area, but that doesn’t make it impossible to deal with successfully either.

Some others respondents have taken the view that search engines should never make “value judgments” about the content of sites, other than that done (which is substantial) for result ranking purposes.

What many folks may not realize is that in the case of Google at least, such more in-depth judgments are already being made, and it would not necessarily be a large leap to extend them toward addressing the dispute resolution issues I’ve been discussing.

Google already puts a special tag on sites in their results which Google believes contain damaging code (“malware”) that could disrupt user computers. Such sites are tagged with a notice that “This website may damage your computer.” — and the associated link is not made active (that is, you must enter it manually or copy/paste to access that site — you cannot just click).

Also, in conjunction with Google Toolbar and Firefox 2, Google collects user feedback about suspected phishing sites, and can display warnings to users when they are about to access potentially dangerous sites on these lists.

In both of these cases, Google is making a complex value judgment concerning the veracity of the sites and listings in question, so it appears that this horse has already left the barn — Google apparently does not assert that it is merely a neutral organizer of information in these respects.

So, a site can be tagged by Google as potentially dangerous because it contains suspected malware, or because it has been reported by the community to be an apparent phishing site. It seems reasonable then for a site that has been determined (by a court or other agreed-upon means) to be containing defaming or otherwise seriously disputed information, to also be potentially subject to similar tagging (e.g. with a “dispute link”).

Pages that contain significant, purposely false information, designed to ruin people’s reputations or cause other major harm, can be just as dangerous as phishing or malware sites. They may not be directly damaging to people’s computers, but they can certainly be damaging to people’s lives. And presumably we care about people at least as much as computers, right?

So I would assert that the jump to a Google “dispute links” mechanism is nowhere near as big a leap from existing search engine results as it may first appear to be.

In future discussion on this topic, I’ll get into more details of specific methodologies that could be applicable to the implementation of such a dispute handling system, based both within the traditional legal structure and through more of a “Web 2.0” community-based topology.

But I wanted to note now that while such a search engine dispute resolution environment could have dramatic positive effects, it is fundamentally an evolutionary concept, not so much a revolutionary one.

More later. Thanks as always.

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I have consulted to Google, but I am not currently doing so — my opinions expressed here are mine alone.
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The correct term is “Internet” NOT “internet” — please don’t fall into the trap of using the latter. It’s just plain wrong!