Random Thoughts: Google Home, Glass and the public privacy mystery

Google announced its home assistant, Google Home at Google I/O today, and the world went nuts. I very much get the allure of the technology — but I don’t quite get the public reaction.

Random thoughts is, as the name implies, random. Also, I’m thinking out loud on the page, so this could be structurally messy.

Google announced a lot of things on day one of its I/O developer conference, but the item that seems to have generated the most hype is Google Home, a small speaker-style device that connects to Google services, takes voice commands and can answer queries, control music, connect to Chromecast devices and manage home automation tasks. The most obvious competitor, and the one that everyone (yeah, I’m guilty of this too) compared to Amazon’s Echo device, because they’re essentially similar Internet-connected smart voice controlled assistant devices.

I find myself somewhat torn over Google Home, and for that matter, Amazon Echo too.

Google Home: I’ve seen the future and it will be…

Bonus points if you get that quote. But I digress.

The technology underlying Google Home, and Echo, and even virtual assistants such as Siri or Cortana is, to put it simply, amazing.

It’s the future of Iron Man’s Jarvis (the movie Jarvis, not the portly Avengers butler, for old school comics fans), or just about any computer in the Star Trek universe, where we converse naturally with our computers as not just an optional interface, but the only interface.

Fast, simple and super convenient, in other words. Amazon doesn’t officially sell the Echo device here in Australia, and hasn’t made particular noise that it would do so, but Google has said that Google Home will come to Australia… eventually. My partner in crime in Vertical Hold discusses that in this week’s episode, which you can listen to below.

The thing is, I know several people who have nimbly sidestepped Amazon and imported Echo devices anyway, and they absolutely adore them to bits. I totally get that too, because what’s happened in IT in the last 20 years or so has been a gradual removal of difficulty barriers. Go back a few generations of Windows and you’d be surprised how relatively arcane much of it was. Go back a bit further and it was all command lines of interest only to the seriously geeky.

Yes, I’m still seriously geeky. My point is, for the average consumer, those interfaces may as well have been in Klingon as anything else for the utility they would offer. A computer you can talk to, and that understands you and accesses the wealth of information and services available on the Internet right now has incredible utility, because the learning curve is simply one of using the language you already know.

It gets even better than that, at least in theory, because we’re very much in the version one phase of this technology. Remember the early feature mobile phones? They were amazing in their day, because you could use them as calculators and play Snake.

Before the younger crowd giggles at how simplistic that sounds, bear in mind that not that long before, phones had wriggly cords and rotary dials. Progress in hindsight always looks obvious.

The potential future for voice driven, internet aware computing is potentially massive, and it’s an exciting thing to watch unveil.

Google Home: Hey, remember when privacy was a thing?

Here’s the flipside, though.

What I want to do is come into your house and deliver simple to understand Internet services that even your grandma or your toddler can understand. Sounds great, right?

All I have to do is wire up obvious microphones throughout your house. Yeah, they’re always on, and they’re always listening.

Suddenly, it doesn’t sound quite so compelling, I’m guessing.

That’s at the heart of how these systems work, and it’s how they have to work, too. The most ubiquitous, easiest way to have these systems operate necessarily involves always listening, and analysing, and that involves simple Internet connectivity at the very least.

Still, people rave about the Echo, and they’re raving about Google Home too.

Which strikes me as funny when you look back through Google’s hardware history when it comes to quirky hardware products. Not so much Android — a home run there no doubt — but Google Glass.

Remember Google Glass? It was going to change the world back in 2013, which wasn’t that long ago, but people were freaking out about the privacy implications of people wearing glasses that could take photos or videos of things the wearer was looking at.

No, really. I wrote a piece at The Drum about it at the time, noting that the privacy implications were somewhat overblown, partly because Glass made it blindingly obvious when someone was recording you or taking a picture, and mostly because even then everyone had a camera in their phone already, so picture taking was pretty small fry in the privacy stakes.

I don’t see too many people freaking out about Google Home or Amazon Echo, or (and I’m guessing here, but if Home takes off as Echo does, it’s a reasonable bet), Apple iSiri Home for that matter. Which feels really weird to me.

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Image: Kai Schreiber

There is part of my head that says that I’m getting a bit on the tin foil hat side with this, but it is at least a fascinating insight into where public perceptions of “privacy” and what that actually means in the digital age are. I know plenty of folks who are absolutely open and explicit online in just about every aspect of their lives, digital or not, although as I noted recently, I wonder about the self-censoring aspect there.

Equally, I know folks who are barely online at all, but not because they’re busy hoarding beans and building bomb shelters; they just don’t want that kind of information online, potentially forever.

Google Home might be the great new way that Google expands its search and advertising empire, or it might be another Glass, drowned largely under public scorn at the privacy implications of such services. It seems more likely to be the former at this stage, but as I say, it’s early days in the home automation game.

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