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BW Businessworld

Fascinated And Horrified

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I often sign right out of Google when I'm looking for something because, thank you very much, I don't want those "personalised" search results. Just because I've gone down one search path doesn't mean I need to tread the same trail again and again, never seeing what results I'd have got if I weren't living where I am, if I weren't biased towards caramelised popcorn, and if I didn't have a tendency to use the same words all the time. So my two-word reaction to Google Now is Fascinated-Horrified.

I'm fascinated because most new technology is fascinating, especially when it demonstrates straightaway the ability to make a real difference to our lives. Google Now is the personal assistant that comes with Jelly Bean, the newest Android version. It is described by those who have had a chance to experience it as far more powerful than Siri as it uses a lot of what Google knows about you — and that's a lot — to personalise notifications and alerts. If you are rushing off somewhere, it could tell you when it is a good time to leave or not, depending on the traffic. You won't need to ask. If you plan to watch  a late evening cricket match, it could remind you. If you missed out on your workout, it could tell you. The possibilities are endless. Combined with that powerful gadget, your smartphone, it is mind-boggling.

Google's objective has always been to own all the information on the planet. But what is impressive is how it is now bringing it all together to become contextual, meaningful and relevant. It was doing fine until it was overshadowed by other heavyweights: Apple and Facebook, for example. It also looked like it was getting left behind in the social web.

But after its recent I/O developers' conference in San Francisco, it increasingly seems that Google is going to be able to integrate information from all its products to be truly useful to the user. Google knows your location, your search history, your profile information, your preferences, tasks, calendars, etc. If you say yes, it will use these pieces to channel personalised and helpful notifications to you.

I'm horrified because I see that I will no longer be controlling many aspects of my life as finely as I was able to do before. And nor will others. Sure, I can sign out of Google and I can opt to turn off all the helpful notifications and information from Google Now, a fast-developing Siri, BlackBerry 10's contextual information, when it comes. But it's really a case of "You can check out but you can never leave" because at the moment these may just be features, but they signify a whole direction in technology. Our behaviour and interaction will be heavily impacted.

Gone will be the conversation-starter I had with a friend who always knows the cricket score — I will already know and refuse to pretend I don't. Gone will be the predictions and arguments over what the weather will be like tomorrow, because we will all be duly notified at the right time. We will never again need to make decisions on when to go anywhere because Google will let us know when the traffic is conducive, when there are seats available at a movie theatre, when there is a special dish that we might like to try at a restaurant. It'll be like having your mother in your pocket.

British Airways's recent plan to Google customers' images and recognise them so as to give them better service, is in some ways a pointer to what could happen. Let's say that they figure out who I am and move me to a window seat because my picture shows me dreamily staring out of my bedroom window. Or, they offer me spaghetti bolognaise because my pictures show me consuming it with great enjoyment. Except I feel airsick looking out of aircraft windows and spaghetti only makes it worse. I'd rather make my own decisions — in fact, I'd rather not even be asked.

There are times when we need our anonymity, our indecision, or that feeling of just going with whatever happens instead of filling every moment with been-there-done-that experiences. As far as I'm concerned, excessive personalisation could narrow my world, even if it makes everything easier. Fascinating and impressive as personal assistance powered by super technology can be, we're already beginning to live in a world shaped by our Facebook ‘Likes' and our Amazon wish lists, our Klout scores and our Twitter analytics. What would happen if this trend grew tenfold? How do you sign out of a world like that?

mala(at)pobox(dot)com, (at)malabhargava on Twitter

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 23-07-2012)