How Useful Will Google Now Be?

With Google announcing Google Now on Tap at Google I/O 2015 and Apple announcing Proactive at WWDC 2015, there is now a lot of discussion on how useful these predictive personal assistants will be. In particular, there is a lot of discussion on how much data these personal assistants will need to collect about you, and whether these assistants need to send this data to be analysed in the cloud.

The problem I have with these arguments is that they do not go into specifics. Instead of say “everything is going to be cool”, we should be having a detailed discussion of how each predictive recommendation is actually made, and whether each recommendation could be performed easily on your local device, or whether it needs to be done in the cloud.

Here, I would like to dig into a pretty good article comparing Apple’s approach and Google’s approach, and look at the examples given there.

Exhibit 1

For instance, if it were possible for Google Photos to figure out that I have a Tesla, and Tesla wanted to alert me to a recall, that would be a service that we would consider offering, with appropriate controls and disclosure to the user.

It’s hard for me to think that Tesla would not have your email address or that they wouldn’t be able to contact you through their dealer network. In fact, in many cases, I imagine that instead of contacting you directly, the recall information would preferably be sent through dealerships due to the complex relationships that they may have. In this case, the benefit gained in exchange for giving up your privacy is extremely trivial.

Exhibit 2

If you’re texting a friend about dinner, Google will give you restaurant reviews and directions automatically. In the future, it might make a reservation and call a driverless car.

The first step here is for the AI to understand that you are texting about dinner. The algorithm could look at keywords (like “dinner” or “eat”), the time, and maybe some other things. It should be pretty simple for the AI to understand that you are thinking about dinner. Next, it needs to give you some reviews which can easily be done through an anonymous connection to Yelp’s services. Reserving a car can also be done through an Uber app installed on your local device, without telling anything on the cloud that you are going to have dinner with a certain person. What I’m saying here is that in this example, there is no need to give each service any more information than is absolutely necessary. Nobody except your device needs to have a comprehensive understanding of who you are texting, when you are going to have dinner and where you are. Each cloud service just needs to know a small portion of this information.

The only place in this article where they detail what Apple can and cannot do is here.

Apple is giving you recommendations based on the phone in your pocket; Google is giving you recommendations based on everything you’ve done that it has recorded.

The assumption is that your phone will no know what you did on your Mac and that will degrade the service that Apple can provide. Well first, there is Bluetooth and WiFi. Apple could use Bluetooth/WiFi to sync your personal information on your Mac with your iPhone. It is easy for Apple to have your devices in sync without ever storing information in the cloud. Also Apple could even sync your information to the cloud in a encrypted format that would be very difficult to decipher. Therefore, the fact that Apple respects privacy does not mean that your information cannot be shared between your devices. This can easily be done.
Second, there is the question of whether any information that stays only on your PC is important at all. Your email, your calendar, your reminders are already synced between your Mac and your iPhone. There is very little relevant information that only stays on your PC.

Although I certainly need to dig into this in a bit more detail, I am skeptical that invading your privacy is essential for providing a better personal assistant service. I would welcome any examples where the personal assistant must absolutely send all knowledge of everything about you to servers in the cloud to be analysed.