Google CEO Schmidt Rekindles Privacy Fears with AI Talk

By Clint Boulton  |  Posted 2010-08-16 Print this article Print

In what has become an all-too familiar rite of technological punditry, techperts are crawling all over the latest comments from Google CEO Eric Schmidt about the future of search being more predictive, pretty much telling people what they want before they know they want it.

You know the story. Google has some Matrix- or Inception-like ideal that its search engine will become so personalized that people's behaviors will be guided by the search algorithms anticipating the human impulse and then acting on it.

Schmidt recently sat down with Wall Street Journal editors and said (paywall warning):

We're trying to figure out what the future of search is ... I mean that in a positive way. We're still happy to be in search, believe me. But one idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type ... I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions ... They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.

Here's the example Schmidt provided that raised hackles in many quarters:

Let's say you're walking down the street. Because of the info Google has collected about you, "We know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are." Google also knows, to within a foot, where you are. Mr. Schmidt leaves it to a listener to imagine the possibilities: If you need milk and there's a place nearby to get milk, Google will remind you to get milk. It will tell you a store ahead has a collection of horse-racing posters, that a 19th-century murder you've been reading about took place on the next block.

Later, Schmidt noted: "As you go from the search box [to the next phase of Google], you really want to go from syntax to semantics, from what you typed to what you meant. And that's basically the role of [Artificial Intelligence]. I think we will be the world leader in that for a long time."

Does this mean we should fear or fight the future, to borrow from one of the alien invasion X-Files mantras?

Depends on your point of view. Plenty of people loathe the idea that algorithms and applications will guide or even control their search experience as Google envisions it.

Nicholas Carr, who frequently blogs about the negative effects of technology on humans, wrote a snarky Lettermanesque jibe in response to Schmidt's words:

I hope Google will also be able to tell me the best candidate to vote for in elections. I find that such a burden.

Stowe Boyd had his own take:

The idea that machines will tell us what to do next is chilling, rather than liberating. Yes, we will use social tools that harness the millions of activities of our social circles and scenes, but our affiliation with others is where we will find meaning, not some functional result served up by Google or Facebook or Twitter. Meaning is the new search.

Maybe, but I think the algorithms will enhance the social connections people have on Facebook, Twitter and perhaps, eventually, this Google Me social network we've been trying to unearth.

The dots Schmidt and these pundits are not connecting is that the delivery mechanism for such functionality is available already in the form of social, location-based apps.

Google Buzz, Google Latitude, Foursquare, Twitter Places and whatever exactly Facebook plans to do in location are all perfect precursors for semantic and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, which I think will take the form of some super-recommendation engines attached to Google search and apps.

These could be upgrades to the existing apps, such as Buzz and Latitude, and likely new Google search apps that provide proactive recommendations for search.

For example, say Google knows when your birthday is, then sends you or your friends and family recommendations for what to do and where to celebrate based on your location and, well, what you like.

This could be great; it's also frightening for some folks because it hits too close to the idea of a machine telling users what to do.

I say bring it on and let the chips fall where they may. It's time to evolve. It's scary and exciting.

The algorithms just haven't caught up to the apps yet. They will, and because they will take the form of familiar apps people use and love, people will largely embrace them.

At least, those that don't feel Google is leeching away their privacy in the swamp of search.

Does anyone really think Google won't put sufficient privacy safeguards in place, particularly in light of the Google Buzz and WiSpy gaffes from this year?

If Google releases these smarter AI technologies without proper safeguards, it would have to be considered a big old Strike 3 after Buzz and WiSpy.

In which case, God help Google because millions will leave. But I don't think Google will stumble here. Google will do semantic search better, and in time it will usher in AI.

And most of you will lap it up because it will be new, fascinating, cutting-edge technology. If not, you'll be left behind in a high-tech world where adherence to the status quo leaves people behind and renders them Luddites. |

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