With the news of Google's plan to release a slew of innovative technologies, we take a close look at the company's quest for happiness through computer intelligence.
"The ultimate search engine would understand everything in the world," Google's Larry Page said at a conference in London in 2006. At the company's annual I/O developer's conference this week in San Francisco, Google announced a number of new services that are bringing the company ever closer toward that goal of perfect understanding.
The biggest announcement was Google Now, the company's virtual assistant, coming to desktop computers via Chrome. The assistant program is activated when the user says "OK Google" and asks a question. Now will answer using the company's massive "knowledge graph" to present what the program recognizes as the most relevant information.
There's a huge paradox at the center of Google's new mission that no one at the company seems to have a good answer to: if it builds an engine that understands everything, why would anyone ever need to search for an answer?
In an on-stage demo, Google's Johanna Wright demonstrated Now's speed and accuracy, quickly pulling up a list of activities when she asked what there is to do in Santa Cruz. More impressively, the program was able to understand and respond to the semantically ambiguous follow-up question about how far it is from "here" to "there." Using Google's positioning software Now figured "here" was the conference room in downtown San Francisco where Wright was connected to the Internet, and assumed "there" had something to do with the previous search queries about things to do in Santa Cruz. So, in about a second, Now produced driving directions and an estimated transit time based on current traffic conditions.
Google's working to make the specific device as unimportant as possible to Now. This, of course, depends on all of the information, habits, and predictive preferences stored for users in their unified Google Plus accounts, which the company's Amit Singhai refers to as a "social spine."
Google has wanted to build a business around the idea of a magically sentient helper that knows everything for years, with both Page and Sergey Brin talking about eventually being able to use the company's search tools to alter and improve one's brain.
"For example you think about something," Page described in a 2004 interview with Retuers, "and your cell phone could whisper the answer into your ear." While Google has yet to unlock cell phone telepathy, the company is making dizzying progress on its decade-long goal.
As is often the case with technological advance, the excitement of trying to do something overwhelms clear thought about why that thing is necessary. There's a huge paradox at the center of Google's new mission that no one at the company seems to have a good answer to: If it builds an engine that understands everything, why would anyone ever need to search for an answer? Individual users might not know a certain fact or date, but if access to all understanding is equally available, what would the incentive to seek out an answer be?
One of the strangely depressing sides of the Internet age has been the emerging redundancy of most thoughts, arguments, and ideas made visible through search. When trying to learn something new for work, having hundreds of ready-to-access tutorials available is an asset, but when you're done learning and ready to produce, the Internet reveals tens of thousands of people who've made that same joke, arranged that same image, built that same thing. There's already an app for that.
Vic Gundotra, Google's senior vice president of engineering said, "Technology can just go away and people can focus on what makes them the happiest." That sounds nice, but what is it that makes us happy?
On the one hand Google is promising the appearance of new technologies that will provide happiness. On the other hand Google is promising its technologies will silently and invisibly take over the tedious parts of life that can interrupt a person's pursuit of happiness. Technology will both appear to make you happy and disappear to make you even happier.
Google wants its technology to be something people accept as part of their daily rituals in the same thoughtless way they do electricity or running water. And part of what makes running water and electricity necessary is that, in the infrequent moments when they're knocked out—by a hurricane, say, or an earthquake—people suddenly realize how helpless they are without them. Where is the nearest well or drinking hole? How can you reach your family or boss if your iPhone's been dead three days and your computer won't start?
We are currently in a bartering process with Google, wherein they're trying to lure us with as many free services as possible, promising happiness with tools that will know all the answers. In exchange, they get from us something better than money; they get material from which to reverse-engineer an intelligence that learns to anticipate human thought and, eventually, surpass it.
I don't think there are many people at Google, or outside of it, who would be able to explain why living with a superhuman intelligence—something that not only knows the answer to every question but also knows in advance what questions we're likely to have—will make us happier. That's probably because it won't.
Michael Thomsen is Complex.com's tech columnist. He has written for Slate, The Atlantic, The New Inquiry, n+1, Billboard, and is author of Levitate the Primate: Handjobs, Internet Dating, and Other Issues for Men. He tweets often at @mike_thomsen.