Searching the web can be such a pain sometimes. Why? It’s simple: you have to think. You have to think about what you want to search. You have to think about the keywords that would give you the results you want. Then, you really have to think about whether the displayed results are really the best webpages to answer your query. So much thinking!
Google gets this, and they want to do away with all this pesky thinking by building a new mobile search product that will know what you’re looking for before you do. It’s kind of like predicting the future. Say you’re having a dinner party on Saturday and want to cook something delicious. You head to the grocery store having not nailed down a menu, and your phone buzzes in your pocket as you walk through the front door. It’s a special surprise from Google: a list of seasonal recipes based on the types of products available in the store. There are also a couple of vegan-friendly dishes for your hippie friend Sandra, who probably would’ve gone hungry because you never remember to leave out the butter. Google gives you expected wait times in the check out aisle, too. All that without even asking.
This scenario is hardly fiction. In fact, Google’s already built a number of new products that, when combined, could offer an intuitive, effortless search experience. The company is starting to tap into the many new sources of information offered by the smartphones that the majority of Americans are carrying around every day and depending on more and more. Take the grocery store example. Google knew that you were having a dinner party because it read the email that you wrote in Gmail and sent out to friends. It knows from the email that Sandra was invited and knows from her Google+ profile that she’s a vegan. It obviously knows that it’s getting close to Christmas time, and you’ll probably want to be festive, hence the seasonal recipes. It might even know what kinds of foods you like to cook based on your search history. And of course it knew which grocery store you picked to do your pre-party shopping because, thanks to the GPS chip in your smartphone, Google knows where you are at all times.
It’s a little bit creepy, but it’s also inevitable. If Google doesn’t do it, somebody else like Apple or Microsoft or some startup that doesn’t even exist yet will. In fact, the closest thing that Google has to an intuitive search tool was developed as a direct response to Apple’s Siri. It’s called Google Play, and it can already do a lot of the predictive thinking. For instance, Google Play will tell you what the weather will be like when you wake up in the morning, and when you’re standing at a bus stop, it’ll tell you how long until the bus arrives. You don’t have to ask. Google knows what you’re doing, and it’s getting better at knowing what you want to do. Jon Wiley, lead user experience designer for Google Search, explained the mission rather concisely in an interview with MIT’s Technology Review. “We’ve often said the perfect search engine will provide you with exactly what you need to know at exactly the right moment, potentially without you having to ask for it,” he said.
If you’re not comfortable with this idea, we don’t blame you. After all, Google’s not building all of these futuristic things for the fun of it. It’s a for-profit business that depends on advertising to keep raking in billions of dollars in profits, and a ubiquitous, artificially intelligent service that knows what you want before you do is an excellent piece of real estate for more targeted ads. Again, if Google doen’t do this, somebody else will. I forgot to mention Facebook before, but they’re obviously trying to come up with better ways to feed you marketing materials. And don’t even get me started on the privacy implications. “If history is any guide”, Google will err on the side of violating users’ privacy in order to get more data. It’ll probably take a lawsuit to get them to back off.
Privacy concerns aside, Google’s new future-predicting search could be pretty awesome. If it can help you create the perfect dinner party, just imagine what it could do for education or health care. Before you know it, nobody will have to think about anything ever. Just like that Mike Judge movie about the future…