Google Flights, launched in 2011, is another quiet behemoth service for Google. It has grown to twice the size of Expedia and it’s doing more revenue than Priceline Group and TripAdvisor combined. It’s simply very hard to compete with Google when it comes to data crunching, and the latest Google Flights feature proves it.
The company announced yesterday that the service will now leverage AI, all of its historical travel delay data, and a number of third-party aggregators to label flights that are delayed–even before airlines disclose the bad news. The information is flagged in real time within Google Flights, but you don’t need an app to see them; they appear even if you search your flight on Google. In turn, Google promises it won’t flag flights as delayed unless it’s 80% confident in the prediction.
Truth be told, Google has done predictive stuff like this for awhile. Google Flights has already flagged frequently delayed routes at the time of purchase. It also tracks Google user GPS data to produce travel times inside Google Maps, or even tell you when a restaurant is most likely to be busy. While it doesn’t appear Google is using its user location data to make these flight predictions strategically (the company did not respond to our clarification on that point). However, the Google is taking a more aggressive step here than it has in other products. By leveraging several pools of available data, Google is essentially auditing the entire air travel industry in real time–an industry that any frequent flyer knows is punishingly opaque, offering very little information or compensation to its own customers. Along the same lines, Google Flights will also start disclosing all those horrible semi-hidden catches that come with those cheaper “Basic Economy” seats, too.
What we’re seeing with Google Flights is a fight being picked–and the weapon of choice is sheer information. With the service, Google is saying that its own intelligence on a topic is more reliable than the source that most of us rely upon. In this case, that source is the travel industry, but it could just as easily be healthcare (“Hey Google, call 911–and bring me to an ER with the shortest wait and best doctors”), food or retail (“Which of these spinach brands is cheap, and least likely to be contaminated with salmonella?), or entertainment (“Buy me a ticket to Black Panther . . . at the theater least likely to house a flu outbreak“).
Where Google’s role gets particularly interesting is when it’s not just answering these questions that you search for, but actively promoting its knowledge that you never asked for in the first place. I recently posed the question: Should Google tell you if you have cancer if it notices something in your search data that you do not? The answers I got from experts varied by profession, but most people agree that yes, yes, yes–it should disclose potentially fatal health diagnoses if the consumer opts in.
Still, the ethics of what Google tells you, and when, could get trickier as these features get more sophisticated. And Google’s own impact on businesses and markets could, too. Could Google’s late flight reports one day fuel a class-action lawsuit against certain airlines? Or could it upset airlines, and screw up travelers, if it’s wrong?
Who knows! But this is the world that we’re enabling simply by searching on Google and carrying around the service in our pockets all day. Each of us is contributing to an omniscient, private business of unprecedented scale. And we can only cross our fingers that it will do no evil, and serve our interests over all else. Why? Because we all helped build Google. And now we depend on it.