The Burning Man vibe was intentional. For Google I/O this year — its annual developer conference, typically held in San Francisco's antiseptic Moscone convention center — the company stayed in Mountain View, camping out at Shoreline Amphitheatre, a grassy concert hall just a short bike ride away from its headquarters.
The keynote kicked off with a wink to the libertine festival. From control booths in the back of the theater, a woman in a leather vest and a man in a collarless blazer strummed a supersized string instrument made from cords that hung in the air high above the audience — an Earth Harp that previously made an appearance in Black Rock City. Google parked a massive “art car" shaped like a ship and festooned with Burning Man bumper stickers in the middle of its sandbox playground for new software and hardware. Product demos took place in repurposed shipping containers. Tycho DJ’d the afterparty.
It was all supposed to signal Google’s return to its roots. In 1998, when the company's founders split for the playa, they added the Man to Google's logo — its first doodle. Burning Man is where Eric Schmidt proved he wasn’t too square to be the company's CEO. When Larry Page spoke of setting aside a place to experiment, free from government interference, he’s describing Burning Man.
In person, the effect was more corporate than countercultural — like something Shingy, the digital prophet with a microchip in his AOL business card, might pitch in a board room. But the mind-altering message still came through, just from an unexpected source: mild-mannered Google CEO Sundar Pichai, who made a convincing case for the radical scope of Google’s initial ambitions.
Pichai returned over and over to Google’s 17-year-old mission statement: to organize the world’s information. Decade-old bets on machine learning and artificial intelligence have put Google ahead of the game when it comes to assisting users, he argued. So what if Google is years late to market and quasi-copying its competitors — the audacity and execution of its goal is (and was) radical. How many companies can make a prediction about technology that will be relevant a generation later, and actually pull it off?
And for an institution that’s been accused of antisocial tendencies, Google has learned a lot about people in 17 years, both in aggregate and about you as an individual. During the keynote, Pichai announced a few services and products intended to launch this year that brought the power of applying machine learning to human beings into stark relief. The coolest and most cinematic offerings were around the Google assistant, a “conversational” interface that powers everything from Google’s far-out improvements in voice search, to messaging, to Google Home, the company’s answer to Amazon Echo.
Google Home is an unobtrusive device meant to blend into the background of your living room or your bedroom. In a promotional video, the a voice-activated, internet-connected speaker briskly enhances the morning routine of a photogenic family.
Google Home rearranged the mom’s schedule when her flight was delayed, woke up the son in time for school and helped the daughter cheat on her homework (but, like, in a cute way), and turned down the thermostat as they left home. The future of search is “ambient” and activated just by uttering the right words. The video makes it look like Google summoned the ghost in the machine, which now lives all around you.
“We think of this as building each user their own individual Google,” said Pichai. Fuck yeah, I want my own Google: I have some pressing questions for myself and I want answers fast.
Google’s ability to fulfill and even anticipate your needs has made its services incredible. Yet while the Google assistant and Google Home are both eager to take your relationship to the next level, it’s the information Google tracks that makes the magic. In order for Google Home to inform you that a flight is delayed, reschedule dinner reservations, and inform your friend, it needs access to your mail, calendar, and messaging. It has to dig through them and weave ties between one information stack and another. In other words, it’s not the individual products but how they all connect.
Which is why instant gratification is the bane of privacy advocates. Because the uncomfortable truth about technology is that services are more useful when they’re given omniscient access to all your data.
Here's how it seems to work. First, Google’s technical genius convinces users to feed it information about our most intimate questions and communications. That anonymized information, in aggregate, helps improve Google’s machine learning and artificial intelligence. (Neural networks need to be fed, right?) And now Google is using all that artificial intelligence to make life more convenient, which in turn convinces users to have a hot mic in every room of our house and to feed it even more information.
Only Google can elicit that German-language-style mashup of desire and dread.
Yet despite all the implied trust, the word “permission” came up but once during a two-hour keynote, when Google’s Mario Queiroz described the vast potential of the Google assistant. “The Google assistant not only knows a lot about the world, but it can stand apart in how it can get to know you over time,” he said, quickly adding, “with your permission, of course.” The audience laughed. What else are you supposed to do when a multibillionaire company goes all sotto voce about its limitations? “As Google assistant gets better,” Queiroz went on to explain, “so will Google Home.” Then he played that video.
Pichai himself introduced another concern, albeit unintentionally. To demonstrate the ease and efficiency of enhanced search, Pichai showed the audience how the Google assistant could make the Friday night nuisance of finding a movie a breeze. Pichai asked, “What’s playing tonight?” The assistant knew he meant movies and spat back recommendations, trailers, and the like. He followed up, “What if I bring the kids?” and it refined the results and offered to buy four tickets. But how did the Google assistant know he had two kids? Or a partner for that matter?
In response to questions from BuzzFeed News, a spokesperson for Google said, “First, to be clear, the example Sundar walked through yesterday was entirely hypothetical — he was demonstrating how we think an assistant should work over time, provided you opt in to share this type of information and receive recommendations.” Concrete answers are not possible “until this functionality is available and working,” said the spokesperson. “Potentially, it could have been that you looked for and purchased four family movie tickets in the past.”
That omniscience is especially powerful compared to the myopic limitations of its chatbot competitors. (At Facebook’s recent developer conference, Mark Zuckerberg showed off a helper bot from 1-800-Flowers.) Siri is much more useful, but tends to short circuit when faced with casual conversation. That’s one reason why Danny Sullivan, chronicler of all things GOOG, said that anyone comparing Google Home to Siri was “missing the big picture.” What the digital helper represents is a search platform for your entire life, in every moment and every location. It's in your phone and on your computer, sure. But also your wrist, your car, your TV — and soon enough — your home.
In the last stretch of the two-hour marathon, the sun began to descend row by row down the amphitheater, scorching strips of exposed skin not covered by complimentary Google sunscreen. The overheated audience dutifully exited and shuffled out. They stood in long lines to demo smartphone-guided robots that flung paint through the air at spinning cubes, and to buy swag that proved they were there.
When the Shoreline Amphitheatre location was announced, it was easy to imagine that Google wanted to use the lawn to roll out a fleet of self-driving cars or sky-dive onto the outdoor stage with VR gear for everyone. But, as Pichai argued repeatedly, context is everything. And letting Google in the front door is trippy enough.