“I actually think most people don’t want Google to answer their questions. They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next.” This is not a quote from a darkly fanciful sci-fi writer, it is the voice of Eric Schmidt, Google’s CEO, describing his vision for the company in an August 14 Wall Street Journal interview. Is it just me or does that come across as just a little bit disturbing, even Orwellian? In that future, Google would apparently be providing a stream of targeted ads, reminders, and recommendations based on personal preference data that is being stored and mined by Google and by others. In other words, Google might purport to know what you want and what you might want to do even before you realize it yourself. That just doesn’t seem to pass the common sense sniff test of being a good thing.
Is this where artificial intelligence (AI) is headed? A set of insanely sophisticated algorithms which attempt to replicate and predict the way we think so that we will buy more stuff, enabling Google and Twitter and others to monetize all the free gee-whiz cyber cool tools we use all the time? In Orwell’s book 1984 (referenced by many but I think actually read by few) “Big Brother” was the see-all, know-all keeper of order and was intended to represent a not-so benign government presence in peoples’ everyday lives. In our increasingly digital age, I think the bigger threat to our autonomy and admittedly inefficient freedom of choice is not Big Brother but “Big Data,” all those facts and files and bits and bytes and datafarms which create a picture of who we are and what our preferences, patterns and habits are (think clicks).
Okay, it’s easy to be overly dramatic about all this and blather about the usual suspects of slippery slopes, mind control and the machines taking over, ala Terminator‘s Skynet. It’s also grist for the neo-Luddites with their hand drawn signs which say “We told you so!” But it is worth reflecting about. In the not too distant future, do we really want to be awakened in the morning by the soothing voice of our Google digital assistant, who goes on to say: “Mike, today would be a good day to start planning your cruise for next spring. I’ve researched three different options for you at different price points based on your last 7 vacations. I think you’ll love the Greek Isles. May I continue?” Is that where search technology is headed? We’ll all have digital coaches, personal shoppers and BF advisors? I’m not so sure I’m ready to sign up for that yet.
Let’s continue. You go to the shopping center and instead of being accosted by panhandlers, you are accosted by clerks and merchants coming out of the stores to greet you by name because your buzzing and beeping cell phone (“Stop here!”) has told them you are steps away from the store and they are plugged into “Big Data” and have targeted a sale on two items just for you because they know your buying history and have anticipated your need. That’s targeted marketing. Full page ads in newspapers seem so inefficient, so impersonal. So last century. In fact, in the interview CEO Schmidt remarks that the “serendipity” of people finding interesting things in newspapers can be calculated now. “We can actually produce it electronically,” he said.
Eric Schmidt and Mark Zuckerman and all the other big-brained cyber-thought-leader rock-stars see a technology enabled future which is full of possibilities and they probably have a hard time remembering a time when they were not electronically connected and networked and tethered. And those life experiences help define their assumptions and values and thankfully, dialogue about assumptions and values and what-ifs is happening more and more among the digerati because of the many concerns about privacy.
True, virtually all technical advances, the printing press, the automobile–you name it–have been opposed, often stridently, by people who were either content with the way things were or who explicitly feared the potential consequences of the change. But human progress will happen and technology can be a wonderful servant as long as it stays the servant. But I don’t want to someday go to HAL. HAL, of course, was the computer in 2001 (yes, we have now invoked all three members of the holy trinity of technological dystopia: Big Brother, Skynet, and HAL) and was an able facilitator until he demonstrated independent thought, went rogue and tried to take control. As he said in the movie, “This mission is too important for me to allow you to jeopardize it.”
Google search (and the others) is simple. MapQuest is simple. LinkedIn is simple. I use them. But where is the tipping point between convenience and intrusion? Between access and excess? Between technological can-do and technological should-do? At least for the near future, I don’t want Google or any other company wanting to be my intimate cyber-buddy and telling me (or even suggesting to me) what I should be doing next. HAL, no.
Mike Hoban is a senior consultant for a global talent management consulting firm and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.