If opening musical numbers are any indication, Google wanted to make sure everyone knew it was going to be a mind-blowing yet quirky day right from the start.
After two years holed up in San Francisco’s Moscone Center, Google’s annual I/O developer conference kicked off outside on Wednesday, in a white-tented amphitheater on the company’s campus in Mountain View. To begin, two musicians, placed in what looked like giant crows’ nests, played strings that ran the length of the forum, stretching from their perches to the metalwork above the stage where Google CEO Sundar Pichai would soon appear. The tune was a number by Yann Tiersen, whose jaunty French folk music has found a wide and loving audience through films like Amélie.
The video that followed took that vibe and gave it a Four Loko. Reeling kaleidoscopes gave way to edgy edits of young men in brightly colored jumpsuits leaping into the air for no particular reason. Installations around the grounds proved aggressively whimsical, too. There was a bus converted into what looked like a pirate ship decorated with whale ribs and antlers, a station where people could pretend to throw a phone and control a robot arm that flung fluorescent pink paint onto a big white cube, and Hershey-kissed shaped cocoons that swung from trees.
These details weren’t pointless decorations. They matter because they’re reflections of what Google views as its corporate psyche. And if Google has its way, the company’s technology is going to be pinch hitting for your own personality in the near the future. It will become harder to tell where you stop and Google starts.
“Every single conversation is different, every single context is different,” said Pichai during his keynote address, his first since becoming Google CEO after a major reorganization. He promised that Google is working to account for the variation among billions of users with billions of needs and desires and dialects with “an ambient experience that extends across devices.”
Wednesday’s keynote conveyed some important details. One, Google is focusing on doing anything and everything that will make your life easier, more convenient and less overwhelming. Another is that Google’s artificial intelligence, machine learning and natural language processing technologies have gotten so advanced that the company’s leaders are confident their gizmos won’t just serve as tools for you, but they’ll even serve as your stand-in in some cases.
One of Google’s videos imagined the future capabilities of Google Home, a voice-controlled speaker powered by the search engine’s smarts. (It’s similar to Amazon’s Echo.) In this button-less future, Google will wake up your kids for you; it will update you on your package statuses and answer almost any other question you might have. With little more than a greeting articulated in its vicinity, Home will warn you of flight delays and kindly push back your restaurant reservations. It will do your scheduling, your nannying. It will literally be your Google Assistant, the apt name given to the device’s core technology.
It doesn’t really matter who changes your dinner reservations. Asking the host at Andina to move your meal back 30 minutes isn’t a creative moment for you as an individual. But Google’s announcements portend a future in which our friends might not know if they’re talking to us or computers pretending to be us, and in which we could come off as pretty weird if we’re not paying attention.
Take Google’s new messaging app, Allo, described as “a smart messaging app which learns over time to make conversations easier, more expressive and more productive.” Google touted Allo’s ability to scan your texts, understand the context and supply readymade human-like responses for you (“Cute dog!” and “That’s good!”). Not just when you were sent words, but even when you were sent pictures.
There are some cases when this kind of super-smart response-generator will save you precious seconds. Your friend says “I’m on my way,” Google suggests the response of “Meet you there,” you pick it and all is well. But outsourcing things like text responses can be trickier. Even if Google has solved the giant A.I. hurdle of disambiguation — meaning it can understand different meanings of words that sound the same, like the example Pichai gave of ordering a curry and not the basketball player Steph Curry — trouble spots remain, like sarcasm.
For example: A friend emailed me a couple months ago and I opened up the message in my Google Inbox app. He had been sick and miserable and wrote, with false enthusiasm, “Also, I haven’t pooped for two straight days!” The pre-written responses Google supplied me included “That’s brilliant!” and “Well done you!” Both of which would have made me sound not only insensitive but also kind of British.
To be sure, the stuff Google displayed to an eager audience of 7,000 people was cool. The company’s new tools promise to give us richer, more accurate search results to vaguer and less-informed queries. We can stand in front of a statue and say “Who designed this?” and get the answer. We can say “show me pictures of my cat” and Google will pull them right up. These products will warn us of things we didn’t know we needed to be warned of, remind us when we forget and help manage our unmanageable lives. But we’re going to have to make sure to hold on to our humanity as it gets easier to let Google and other tech companies take the words right out of our mouths.