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!