Google wants you to use its products less so it doesn’t end up like Facebook

JOMO arrives on stage.
JOMO arrives on stage.
Image: Stephen Lam/Reuters
We may earn a commission from links on this page.

Google’s technology is about to disappear.

Liberated by artificial intelligence, the company’s technology is fading into the background of our lives. The search box, the Google Home speaker, even the Android phone will just be the physical manifestations of Google’s artificial intelligence. Apps riding in our pocket, speakers in our cars and any device connected to the cloud will all talk to each other, and through that sharing come to know us as well as (or better than) we perceive ourselves.

That future was previewed May 8 at Google I/O, the search giant’s annual developer conference. CEO Sundar Pichai showed Google’s new Duplex artificial intelligence system, which may one day form part of Assistant, deftly scheduling appointments in conversations with real people over the telephone, none of whom realized they were talking to a machine. Listen to a conversation below.

It was a showstopper. Yet between that and feature launches for online ordering and Google News, Google unveiled something else nearly as surprising. Pichai called it Digital Wellbeing. While easy to dismiss as a meaningless catchphrase, it signaled a massive shift in the company’s priorities.

Google had “done the research,” Pichai said, and concluded there was a problem. “There is increasing social pressure to respond to anything you get right away,” he said during the keynote. “People are anxious to stay up to date with all the information out there. They have FOMO: the fear of missing out. We think there’s a chance for us to be better,” adding a new acronym to the lexicon “JOMO,” or the joy of missing out.

For years that’s been the pitch of people like Tristan Harris, a former Google ethicist and the founder of the Center for Humane Technology. Now, it’s being framed as company policy. Digital Wellbeing is an attempt by Google to convince people to moderate their use of its products and services. Not entirely, of course, but in small and subtle ways that curb their addictive, destructive tendencies. The move “may stop a long-term backlash,” said one developer attending I/O. “You see [Google] pushing into every aspect of life.”

As Pichai put it, Google will seek to understand users’ habits, retrain their focus on what’s important, and then switch things off so people can spend time with their families and away from screens. Google’s website describes its initial measures: There will be an Android dashboard to show how you use your phone time; suggested breaks from YouTube marathon sessions; and batched notifications to avoid unnecessary distractions.

In an email to Quartz, Harris called Tuesday’s announcement “great first steps.” They’re likely not the last. Pichai called Digital Wellbeing a deep, ongoing effort across all of Google’s products. “It’s clear technology can be a positive force, but it’s equally clear that we can’t just be wide-eyed at the innovations technology creates,” Pichai said. “We know the path ahead needs to be navigated carefully and deliberately, and we feel a deep sense of responsibility to get this right.”

Google’s quest not to be like Facebook

The breadth of Google’s user data is staggering. Search, browsing, map, email and phone data give Google insights that rival or exceed even Facebook’s social graph. Movement data in Waymo, Google’s autonomous-car sister company, as well as Google Assistant, could soon be added as well. AI, which Pichai described as “more profound … than electricity or fire,” can tie this data together in unexpected and indispensable ways. Once that happens, Google implies it can be more than just a product, but “someone” we invite into our living room, car, kitchen, and bedroom, and trust with our most intimate questions and our families.

Google is preparing for that future now. One of its most urgent concerns is to avoid Facebook’s fate. Many in Silicon Valley reveled in schadenfreude as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was roasted on the spit of public opinion, then grilled in Congressional hearings. The fallout from Zuckerberg’s cavalier attitude toward users’ privacy was not lost on his fellow executives. When Apple CEO Tim Cook was asked how he would handle Facebook’s privacy dilemma if he were Zuckerberg’s shoes, Cook replied, “I wouldn’t be in that situation.” (Of course, that’s easy for Apple to say given that the company makes its money off hardware and proprietary software, not users’ data).

Google is far more like Facebook than it would like to admit. Both companies have built their fortunes selling online ads that target people using their personal data. In the first quarter of 2018, Google’s online advertising business raked in $31.15 billion, more than twice what Facebook generated during that same period. Overall, online ads were 85% of Google’s annual revenue.

So far, the search giant has avoided the wrath visited upon Facebook, but Pichai intuits this won’t last forever. “As a company, we end up being a symbol for many things, whether we want to or not,” he told the Guardian last year. “We have to hold ourselves to a much higher bar than everyone else. When we make mistakes it is very costly.”

Digital Wellbeing is Google’s public attempt to differentiate itself before the reckoning and it’s been careful not to mention Facebook’s name. Despite hours of presentations on the I/O stage, no one dwelt on privacy or data security, or attempted to draw to explicit differences with the social network in the ways it collects and handles its users’ personal data.

As Google’s hold on vast swaths of the digital landscape strengthens, the company is now entering a new phase: good governance. Companies do not actively lobby for users to stop using its product unless they knows there is a serious problem. By getting out ahead of what future generations may see as a public health crisis, Google sidesteps the inevitable retribution.

Google’s home in the search box isn’t over, but it will be replaced by artificial intelligence that meets you anywhere. The company’s future isn’t building traditional technology products. Instead, it’s slipping technology imperceptibly into the daily current of human life. During his keynote speech, Pichai noted 60% of small businesses still lack online booking systems. Rather than convince more people to use one, Google’s first public demonstration of its most advanced AI was aimed at fixing a simple problem. Expect more of this.

Duplex is the first step to making Assistant, and the rest of Google’s AI-powered interfaces, distinctly human. We will no longer be forced to communicate with computers on their terms, but interact with them like a member of our staff, or even family. As one I/O attendee from a major coffee brand said their company is betting on AI-powered voice interfaces like Duplex. “I think we know that it’s the future,” she said. “Millennials and post-millennials are almost skipping over text message to some extent, using their voice as their native way of communicating.”

In a world like that, Assistant becomes an indispensable presence because it can anticipate and respond to our needs better than any human. Google’s Assistant will only get better as more people use it (it’s already on 500 million devices). Today, you can ask Assistant for the weather in 10,000 different ways. Tomorrow, if Duplex is any indication, it will soon carry on natural conversations on your behalf and carry out everything from airline reservations to helping with homework. In a world like that, Google has to figure out what a healthy life looks like online, because we’ll never be off.