Recently, Google held their annual developer conference, Google I/O, where the company announce what’s new and whats coming. Frankly, all that news can be super overwhelming. But it's also pretty relevant: how many of us interact with at least one Google thing a day?
The entire Future section here at The Outline sat down for an episode of the Dispatch to explain what happened, in language that humans understand.
There’s a new episode of The Outline World Dispatch every Monday through Thursday. You can subscribe wherever you listen to podcasts, but here are some links to get you started.
Sundar Pichari: Good Morning. Welcome to Google I/O. It’s a beautiful day, I think warmer than last year. Hope you’re all enjoying it. Thank you for joining us.
Casey Johnston: All right. Paris and Caroline thank you for joining me today here. So yesterday at least two of us watched the Google I/O keynote. Caroline I don’t know if you did.
Caroline Haskins: I watched some of it after the fact.
Casey Johnston: OK. So we all watched at least some of it and we were all sitting there trying to make sense of all the new features that they were presenting and whether they’ll ever have any basis in reality. Paris you were...
Paris Martineau: I was live Slack-ing the entire time.
Casey Johnston: Screaming.
Paris Martineau: I was not screaming, I was just very excitedly Slacking about the possibility of cool stuff.
Casey Johnston: So I think let’s just go over in language that people who aren’t Android developers can understand. What would you say was like this theme of the whole keynote?
Paris Martineau: I mean that’s kind of a hard question. I mean every keynote they want to present a bunch of cool innovative new ideas. But I mean I guess the common thread that I noticed is that Google announced a lot of features or apps or potential apps that make use of all of the data and things they collect about you like make your life ostensibly more like easier or better or more convenient because they’re all going to be connected in some way.
Casey Johnston: Yeah you wrote a piece about this that you called this the “Google Extended Universe”, can you say a little bit more about what you meant by that?
Paris Martineau: Google collects a lot of information about all of us on everything we do whether it’s you know just searching or if you have an Android phone. Everything you ever do on the phone...
Casey Johnston: Or Gmail.
Paris Martineau: Or Google Pictures or YouTube or Calendar, all of the things, Maps, you could go on, but I feel like up until recently I mean they mostly still use that data for internal things or to sell to advertisers or to create better profiles for ads. But what I happened to notice in this keynote was a lot of the features or apps that were being announced made use of this data in some way like one of the first times––they announced this update to Google News which had a lot of interesting features about it. But the one thing that struck me is once you sign into it, I assume with your Google account, you know they mentioned during the keynote that you don’t have to you know set your preferences for news you like or tell it where you live.
Casey Johnston: There’s no screen that pops up where it’s like pick your interests.
Paris Martineau: Yeah––it knows everything basically.
Trystan Uphill: With the new Google News, we set out to help you do three things. First, keep up with the news you care about. Second, understand the full story. And finally, enjoying support the sources you love.
Paris Martineau: Like the guy on stage, he was like “oh I don’t need to tell it that I like politics and live in the Bay Area and bike––it’ll just show me stuff from that it knows.” I’m like “where the fuck is it getting that from Google?” That’s terrifying.
Casey Johnston: I mean yeah you can imagine that. Like who...who isn’t, you know gripped by politics right now. But like if you spend a lot of time looking up Google Maps directions for “how to ride places on a bike”, now you’re going to get all of the biking, all of the cycling stories on Google News that you could possibly want.
Paris Martineau: You look up like movie tickets or you look up information about The Avengers. Then it’ll show––
Casey Johnston: Every Avengers story...
Paris Martineau: Show you all the Avengers stories for us.
Casey Johnston: I forget if this was one of the things you were excited about but do you see this as a good thing?
Paris Martineau: It’s the sort of thing where I get a guess on a day-to-day basis for most consumers, yeah it will be convenient. OK, Google is collecting information about us either way. But I think the issue here is that I mean it’s not just for stuff like Google News and most of their products was this sort of core functionality of knowing everything about you without having to tell you. And I feel like the fact of the matter is we don’t––there isn’t really any transparency into how they’ve gotten the state or what information they have where it’s being shared within all of Google’s apps or features and no way to hold them accountable for it. So it’s one tiny person connected to one of these things happens to I guess mess up the whole data privacy chain of command or whatever it is then all of this data could potentially get in the wrong hands.
Casey Johnston: So are you referring to a Facebook, Cambridge Analytica situation where they––like Facebook itself wasn’t really leaking data but a developer found a way to get access to a lot of data at once and then he could sort of just like port it out anywhere, he could pop like anyone he could possibly share it to could like have it.
Paris Martineau: Yeah it’s the sort of thing that if one person in this huge like so large it’s like hard to even fathom how large it is, chain of data sharing––
Casey Johnston: How many app developers there are, how many ad networks?
Paris Martineau: Random companies they’re involving in this way, if one person decided––hey I’m going to you know use this for this research project with is totally not evil at all sounding British political survey company called Cambridge Analytica––or something like that could very easily happen with this, and I mean it just seems like the sort of thing that we all should be cognisant of even if you are excited about these features.
Paris Martineau: So that’s the issue at hand here is that Google or Alphabet, their parent company, touches so many parts of our lives in ways that seem different. It’s not just like Gmail, Google Calendar, the stuff that has Google, it’s everything that has to do with Android phones. And actually one of the things they also announced was an update to Android’s operating system, I think it’s called Android P. One part of it was they are able to predict what app they think you might need next. But now they’re doing the same thing but with actions. So they’re getting information from all of the time you spend on apps as well as asking all of the app developers to give them information about what you’re doing within the apps so they can predict like am I going to send a Slack message to Casey today at like 1:30 is that what I’m going to do? If so here’s an icon for it and they’ll know like everything about what you’re doing at all times on your phone because that’s your life which is terrifying. And that is going to be shared do your Google assistant––
Casey Johnston: Let’s try and make a concrete example, so if I’m texting someone like say one of my siblings and they’re like “oh yeah, Mother’s Day is this weekend,” I’ll be like “oh man I should really like, it’s too late to send a card but I should really send her some flowers.” And then––
Paris Martineau: What ad do you think get you’re gonna get?
Casey Johnston: 1-800-Flowers, like either like, I don’t know, do they do ads in your texts yet?
Paris Martineau: No no.
Casey Johnston: It’s only a matter of time, and or like I don’t know, here’s 1-800-Flowers app that I can like order flowers from or I don’t know something. What a time.
Paris Martineau: Yeah it’s just it’s some it’s a very large complicated mess that I can understand I guess on like a day to day level for the average consumer, sounds great will probably be helpful. But it’s also we have to start thinking about the worst case scenarios for these things. You know it’s in regards to what recently happened to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica, that’s a concrete and relevant example but it could be much worse than that. And there’s probably going to be others like that.
Casey Johnston: Yeah true. Caroline which part of the keynote did you actually watch?
Caroline Haskins: Probably the first half, I think it ended right around what Paris was talking about with the with the updates to the like the P system on the Android. But I think I guess what stood out to me when I was watching was they seemed to be sort of emphasizing accessibility and an ethical approach to the A.I. technology that they’re integrating but it’s it’s not without. I mean necessarily by using all this stuff you’re just becoming more reliant on their products and none of none of this is new.
Sundar Pichari: In fact we can even apply a machine learning to a 200 year old technology, morse code, and make an impact in someone’s quality of life. Let’s take a look.
Tanya: Hi, I am Tanya. This is my voice...
Caroline Haskins: But it just seems like by you know expanding the ways that they can autocomplete your thoughts, your e-mails––
Paris Martineau: Oh you should probably explain that one a bit more.
Casey Johnston: Yeah let’s go into that what do you mean by that?
Caroline Haskins: Right. So they announced this Gmail autocomplete feature and I think the example that they used was Taco Tuesday. So let’s say you’re reaching out to your buds and you want to get some “tacs”––get some tacos––
Sundar Pichari: We use machine learning to start suggesting phrases for you as you type. All you need to do is to hit tab and keep autocompleting.
Caroline Haskins: Google figures out how you want to say hi to your friend. You know you can start typing a location and you know it’ll even insert like these these nice little greetings like, “oh hi I hope, I hope you’re doing well.” Just a little speaking mannerisms which I guess it’s pulling from the way that you’re addressing this person or other people in your previous e-mails. And you know obviously it’s not everybody has the same amount of time and ability to be dedicating a lot of time to to e-mail. And you know you can certainly imagine users that could benefit from this but it just seems like it would be very easy to become reliant on this feature and especially when they were sort of emphasizing this idea of like digital well-being. It just seems kind of ironic that you know––
Casey Johnston: How do you mean digital well-being?
Caroline Haskins: They were emphasizing this idea that their services are going to encourage you to take time to step away from their services and enter the real world and have a better balance and use their products more efficiently.
Sameer Samat: Our team has heard so many stories from people who are trying to find the right balance with technology. People tell us a lot of the time they spend on their phone is really useful. But some of it they wish they spent on other things. So we’ve been working hard to add key capabilities right into Android to help people find the balance with technology that they’re looking for.
Caroline Haskins: There’s a difference between taking a break from a product and having the ability to divorce from it entirely. And you know we’re way past the point of being able to just stop using Google at least in my opinion and foreseeable––
Casey Johnston: Oh yeah it’s like the fabric of our society now.
Paris Martineau: Yeah I was thinking that. Like what. Who oh who would be without Google.
Casey Johnston: I know.
Caroline Haskins: I don’t know?
Paris Martineau: Like Google Docs is also in this list, I’m literally looking at a Google Docs right now.
Casey Johnston: I mean it’s like I feel I get annoyed with these like stories that are like “oh I stopped I stopped using my smartphone and went back to a flip phone and here is my experience” because it’s like what attaches you to your smartphone is not like the sheer functionality of the smartphone but the fact that everyone you know has a smartphone and expects you to have a smartphone. It’s like if you like didn’t have if you like lived and we don’t like we all live in New York so we don’t have cars, but if you lived in the suburbs and you didn’t have a car––
Paris Martineau: People would be like “wow, look at this anti-car...”
Casey Johnston: Yeah. It’s literally like he did an article that was like “I’m switching back to a horse.”
Caroline Haskins: It’s this weird status symbol. Yeah I don’t know.
Casey Johnston: Horses?
Caroline Haskins: The ability to have a horse.
Paris Martineau: Oh that’s true.
Casey Johnston: I mean yes it is. I mean that’s true. That’s kind of true.
Paris Martineau: Like I guess because it’s a luxury.
Casey Johnston: Technology also.
Paris Martineau: The flip phone is America’s horse.
Casey Johnston: Yes it it. It truly is.
Caroline Haskins: Like if you have if you have the privilege to be able to step away from all of these services even just even just while you’re on the go. I mean I mean I can’t stop before a stoplight without checking Slack and write my e-mail. Right? It’s impossible. It’s definitely a sign of privilege to be able to even consider that.
Casey Johnston: Yeah. It’s like a nice idea for everyone to be able to like take a step back. But like it’s so ingrained in us that it’s not like a personal responsibility or like self control thing it’s like a expectation a societal expectation thing which means like everyone like it would be nice if we could all re-evaluate how what the expectations are around these things and like change what’s going on. But it takes like a it needs to be like a group effort. It’s not like for Google to be like you personally should do X, Y and Z it’s like no one has that sort of like amount of agency and if you do it you probably don’t need to be that attached to your device. So it’s a little bit daring.
Paris Martineau: At first I found it interesting or perhaps a good idea but then I realized how silly it was. Google’s digital wellbeing specifically the apps or services they announced I think one of them was called, I mean they have app timers.
Sameer Samat: Android P lets you set time limits on apps and we’ll nudge you when you’re close to your limit and it’s time to do something else. And for the rest of the day that app icon is greyed out to remind you of your goal.
Paris Martineau: Come on. We are adults here. You should not to lock yourself out of your own phone but they have something called “shush mode” which I thought was also ridiculous.
Sameer Samat: People have also told us they struggled to be fully present for the dinner that they’re at or the meeting that they’re attending because the notifications they get on their device can be distracting. So we’re making improvements to Do Not Disturb mode to silence not just the phone calls and text but also the visual interruptions that pop up on your screen to make Do Not Disturb even easier to use. We’ve created a new gesture that we’ve affectionately code named Shush. If you turn your phone over on the table it automatically enters do not disturb––
Paris Martineau: Or same with “wind down mode” which is like if you’re telling Google you’re going to go to bed soon then it will put on do not disturb mode and slowly fade to greyscale within 30 minutes. And like––
Casey Johnston: Come on, is that real?
Paris Martineau: That’s real! That’s a real one.
Sameer Samat: Finally we heard from people that they often check their phone right before going to bed. So we created Wind Down Mode. You can tell the Google Assistant what time you aim to go to bed. And when that time arrives it will switch on Do Not Disturb and fade the screen to grayscale which is far less stimulating for the brain and can help you set the phone down.
Casey Johnston: Thats really annoying. The face down thing is one that I would like forget that that was a feature like just idly put my phone down and then an hour later I realized I have like 4000 messages.
Paris Martineau: Would that work? I have my phone in my back pocket a lot. Yet somehow read that it’s face down?
Casey Johnston: It might actually. So another thing that I wanted to like zoom in on was the Google announced something called Google Duplex which is where you, I mean, I wrote about it and it’s like a thing that they’re working on but it’s not formally like released yet but it’s basically a feature where you can tell your Google Assistant that like you could say like “I wanna get my haircut at like 4 o’clock next Tuesday.” And your Google assistant will call your haircutting place and have a full like natural language conversation––
Paris Martineau: With a bunch of ums and uhs.
Casey Johnston: “So this person wants to get a haircut at 4:00 p.m., do you have any appointments available?” And the like person will respond, it will process like “oh yeah that’s great, cool they’ll see you then.” Or whatever. And then––
Paris Martineau: Then Google Assistant adds it to your calendar.
Sundar Pichari: Let’s say you want to ask Google to make you a haircut appointment on Tuesday between 10 and noon. What happens is the Google Assistant makes the calls seamlessly in the background for you.
Salon: How can I help you?
Google Assistant: Hi, I’m calling to book a women’s haircut for a client.
Salon: Sure, what time are you looking for around?
Google Assistant: At 12pm.
Salon: We do not have a 12pm available, the closest we have to that is a 1:15pm.
Google Assistant: Do you have anything between 10 a.m. and 12 p.m?
Salon: Depending on what service she would like. What service is she looking for?
Google Assistant: Just a woman haircut for now.
Salon: OK, we have a 10 o clock?
Google Assistant: 10am is fine.
Salon: What’s her first name?
Google Assistant: The first name is Lisa.
Salon: OK perfect. So I will see Lisa at 10 o’ clock on May 3rd.
Google Assistant: OK great. Thanks.
Salon: Great, have a great day bye.
Sundar Pichari: That was a real call you just heard.
Casey Johnston: I mean a scary thing that I didn’t even touch on is that the person who is talking to this assistant at the hairdressing place doesn’t know that they’re talking to a robot. There is no indicator.
Paris Martineau: Yeah it’s a real person talking to a robot that sounds like a person. It’s just the internet was losing its mind over these videos yesterday because they sound very realistic but of course they’re nowhere near actually being out in the world. Right. They’re just demos.
Casey Johnston: I think Sundar said that there are many many conversations where this assistant really like duffed it and could not, the real person and the assistant could not make sense of each other but they only played the couple of conversations where it actually succeeded. So it seems like a ways from actually being a real feature. However it’s like the possibility is out there. So I wanted to ask you guys. I mean I said I can’t wait to outsource every every hard conversation I have to have.
Paris Martineau: There’s an article about this on theoutline.com––
Casey Johnston: On theoutlne.com. I gave a bunch of examples of all the difficult conversations that we can outsource like asking your boyfriend if he’s cheating on you, giving your children the “talk”. I forget all the other ones. There’s quite quite a long list that you should check out but do you guys think this is like an actual problem that needs solving that you or you would be like happy to have this feature.
Caroline Haskins: I mean as someone that struggles and those type of situations a lot at least how I feel. I don’t know, I I mean I have this idea that confronting those anxieties is going to help me develop as a person but I don’t have any concrete proof for that.
Casey Johnston: Interesting. Interesting that Google would do something that lets you basically stay in the womb, rather than being a grownup.
Paris Martineau: Yeah shocking.
Caroline Haskins: I’ll just be a snowflake forever.
Paris Martineau: No. Google is working with Big Soy to take away all our masculine traits.
Casey Johnston: Paris, do you think it’s something that you would either use or be happy to have?
Paris Martineau: I don’t know. I think that I would it would be cool to use maybe if it actually worked. But I don’t trust that Google would ever actually do it correctly. I don’t know. I feel like every time I trust in technology to do like the one thing have it’s supposed to do accurately it fucks me over and it’ll be really awkward if that happened and I ended up getting like a haircut that didn’t exist.
Casey Johnston: Yeah I mean––
Paris Martineau: Or I could just really pick up the phone and call somebody and do that or no I just do it online because the internet exists.
Casey Johnston: But I mean as this was happening I was saying to other people at our work I was like I feel like the thing to remember here is not that long ago that like Google Voice when you would receive a voicemail and then Google Voice would transcribe the voicemail and it would just be like jibberish 90 percent of the time like it didn’t understand words it got words wrong. It was just like a complete mess. And I feel like a big thing here is Google I think put up some slide that was like our natural language processing has gotten so much better. Like they understand things so much better but I sort of suspect that it’s like something about it processes errors better not that it’s like perfectly accurate.
Paris Martineau: I think the thing is just they have such a large data set to draw from when it comes to natural language processing and like how you make this work is that you have to have a huge sample and then get the basic math of probability and other stuff from it and since it’s Google they have all of our Google searches ever Google Docs stuff everything we do in Gmail––
Casey Johnston: Every email that’s ever been around.
Paris Martineau: I mean they have enough data that eventually I’m sure it’ll work fine but I’m not sure what the, I guess people will use that as a practical application. They did mention I think at the end of that one thing they’re beta testing starting soon is it going to use the Google Voice or the Google AI or Duplex what it’s called type calls for business hours when it comes to holidays because you know it will say whenever you look at the hours of a business and like Labor Day or something like Labor Day we don’t know what these hours are, I guess businesses obviously get a lot of calls asking about holiday hours. They’re going to use the Google Duplex to call the business once, ask them for their holiday hours, and update it.
Casey Johnston: That’s smart. And like a lot of times you don’t even have to talk to somebody like that like that will be if you call a business the first thing they say on the phone are like “our hours for like the upcoming holidays are blah blah blah blah.” They don’t even have to like talk to somebody. So that’s that’s like good. I appreciate. I would appreciate that use.
Paris Martineau: Yeah you know I think it would be good like that would be good if you like calling your credit card company and you could just have a conversation with the robot.
Casey Johnston: Oh my god can you imagine if you could call, if you could do it––like this is one that I missed. I wish I had included it like to cancel your gym membership or like––
Paris Martineau: Oh god!
Casey Johnston: Oh my god like done, I’d be so happy.
Paris Martineau: That’d be really good.
Casey Johnston: OK. So closing thoughts. Do you guys think Google is going to take over all human contact and replace us––
Caroline Haskins: Christ...
Casey Johnston:––with self driving vehicles and AI’s talking to each other?
Paris Martineau: I think Google’s next, maybe Google I/O for 2020 is just going to be Westworld.
Casey Johnston: Oh my god. Can you imagine?
Caroline Haskins: Am I the only one at this office who hasn’t watched Westworld?
Paris Martineau: Watch Westworld Caroline!
Caroline Haskins: I know, we have the podcast, I know! I need to do that.
Casey Johnston: Caroline, Google is taking all of its cues from Westworld so you need to––
Paris Martineau: it’s actually a part of the tech world now.
Casey Johnston: So you think Google is on a path to taking over?
Paris Martineau: I mean I think every tech company wants to be a walled garden in the world.
Casey Johnston: I think Google might be doing the best job though.
Paris Martineau: I think Google is doing the best and they’re doing the best––
Casey Johnston: The best the best like they’re––
Paris Martineau: They’re flying under the radar and are the furthest along like people are not as much like “Google, I’m so angry that they’re taking over the world.”
Casey Johnston: Maybe the best public opinion. It’s like I think people are like a little mad at Apple, they’re very mad at Facebook. Microsoft is nowhere.
Paris Martineau: Microsoft is like off the map down the corner.
Casey Johnston: Caroline has never heard of––
Caroline Haskins: I know Microsoft!
Casey Johnston: Windows 95 did not exist when Caroline was born.
Caroline Haskins: Yeah I mean come on!
Paris Martineau: Windows 95 is a thing we need to measure our lives by.
Casey Johnston: We do that because it’s still on all the satellites. Just a fact that I love. Thank you guys so much for coming on the podcast.
Paris Martineau: Thanks.
Caroline Haskins: Thanks for having us.