Up until Ray Kurzweil’s announcement that he was joining Google as Director of Engineering, I had been thinking about the search giant as two discrete companies in one skin. Now, I’m thinking it is actually three.
Google has been successful beyond any reasonable expectation at becoming a ubiquitous, daily utility to a large share of the world’s population. The value that the company provides as a service to internet users is vast and perhaps unmeasurable. It’s service to marketers is easier to quantify and has been transformative, as well. The third leg of the stool—the reason Kurzweil signed on—is the company’s pursuit of an artificially intelligent future. Each of these elements have pitfalls as well as virtues, but to what extent are they at odds with one another?
I am not on the inside of Google, so it is possible that these distinctions are very explicit in the company’s day-to-day operations, but each one of these functions could be a robust company itself. Would users be better served if they were?
The core of Google, its search product, has insinuated itself into every nook and cranny of the internet, from the web to the app-o-verse. Although there has been some heavy-handedness along the way, it has mostly done this by being excellent. The triumphant return of Google Maps to the iPhone—and the dogging of Apple‘s Maps app—was a clear signal that great data plus simple design is a winning formula on mobile, and everywhere.
Google’s explicit push to make better iOS apps than Apple itself is a testament not only to the company’s competitiveness but also of its superior understanding of users’ needs. The challenge for Google, and really all of the internet companies that offer their products for free, is how to keep the user’s interest first and still get paid (by someone other than the user!)
As Andrew Lewis (writing as Blue_beetle on MetaFilter in 2010) formulated it, “If you are not paying for it, you’re not the customer; you’re the product being sold.” The conditions of that sale, of course, are far from explicit, but Google has made it virtually frictionless. Who would begrudge a friend who tells you they can solve your problem and make a little money for themselves in the process? As long as the self-interest seems secondary to the service, consumers are good to go.
But as we can see from Facebook‘s far less successful attempt at monetization, when a company ratchets up the marketing more than the service, there is room for consumers to question the equation. But since, in advertising terms, desktop nickels are mobile pennies (compared, of course to TV or print dollars), the pressure to up the invasiveness of marketing messages—particularly on your phone—is getting intense.
The FTC’s ruling on Thursday in Google’s favor (with a few minor constraints) is a clear signal that antitrust issues will not prevent the company’s future expansion into “pay-for-play” listings in its search results. The commission did not find any appreciable harm to consumers in the way Google prioritizes and labels its commerce related listings.
This is great news for the search giant, but less so for its competitors. As Google improves its delivery of relevant information across its suite of products, from desktop to mobile to TV and your car, many niches will be harder to break into for startups and big tech companies alike. And all of those products return ad revenues to Google—and take them away from its competitors.
In general, consumers are happy with the bargain that Google is offering. In the new Google Maps, the speed with which the app recognizes what you are trying to type based on all kinds of contextual clues is uncanny. The fact that you may be exposed to contextual advertising in the process seems (correctly) incidental. But as the relevance improves, the “filter bubble” (to use Eli Pariser’s brilliant coinage) can become more obvious. At what point does the question, “How do you know that about me?” introduce paranoia into the act of searching?
Enter Ray Kurzweil. In a conversation with X Prize Chairman Peter Diamandis at Singularity University on Thursday, the futurist said that “at Google, he will be working on advanced implementations of AI and will have unlimited resources,” according to a live tweet by Vivek Wadhwa. “Kurzweil envisages creating tech that really understand human language and real meaning at Google,” Wadhwa also reported.
Kurzweil shares with Google’s co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin a personal investment in the idea of “the singularity.” Wishing for the day that artificial intelligence will surpass human intelligence runs the risk of fetishizing the machine—at the expense of our humanity—but this too is part of Google’s tripartite DNA.
Kurzweil has been right before, notably by predicting that exponential rate of innovation would allow for the sequencing of the human genome. In his announcement about joining Google, Kurzweil adds that, “In 1999, I said that in about a decade we would see technologies such as self-driving cars and mobile phones that could answer your questions, and people criticized these predictions as unrealistic. Fast forward a decade—Google has demonstrated self-driving cars, and people are indeed asking questions of their Android phones.”
Exponential growth and power curve distribution are a fact of life, particularly in technology, hence Kurzweil’s law of accelerating returns. But tech growth is the result of successive S-curves stacked upon one another such that a new one rises as the last is flattening out Peter Diamandis apparently said something similar on Thursday’s event, according to Wadwha, but the S-curves were incorrectly described as rising and falling, which would be a bell curve! That has certainly been the pattern of Apple’s success, with its succeeding waves of product lines from iPod to iPhone to iPad, but Google has struggled for growth beyond search and its attendant advertising. Google’s alliance with Kurzweil represents, perhaps, an all-in for super-intelligent search as the continued cornerstone of its business.
Who does this aggressive pursuit of the future benefit more, internet users, advertisers or “the singularity” itself? My concern, as a user advocate, is that we know the terms of the bargain and have ways to opt out if we no longer like them. The success of Google’s whole enterprise—the reason why its products are better than its competitors—is because of its user-centricness. Can the company provide Kurzweil and its other futurists with the “unlimited resources” they may require to achieve their lofty goals without turning the advertising knob too loud for users’ comfort?
One, admittedly far-fetched, option to ensure this protection would be for the company to subdivide into its three component parts. Let the search and other user services become quasi-public utilities, Let the advertising platform pay the service platform of access to its users and underwrite the futurist program as high-level R&D. The strange thing here is that, from a business perspective, the singularity quickening is the harder sell. Is the function of the unified company not, in fact, the service of its users and advertising customers, but the service of the future itself?
– – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –