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Does Google listen in on your life?

Mike Elgan | Dec. 12, 2016
A widely held myth says Google eavesdrops on your life to improve search results. It doesn't, but should it?

It's also easy to forget that you in fact have previously searched for something. If you don't remember that fact, AutoComplete options can be surprisingly accurate.

4. Artificial intelligence

The human mind is not generally capable of understanding the cumulative power of personal data to predict outcomes. Google A.I. is capable of connecting many dots behind the scenes to predict results. If you think about it, someone whose search results generally reveal hypochondria and who types the words "where can I" into a search bar during a flu epidemic is likely to search for: "where can I get a flu shot." The user may wonder: "How did they know what I was thinking?"

On that last point: Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said that "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic." Magician David Blaine does amazing tricks. One explanation is that he has magic powers. A far more likely explanation is that it only looks like magic because his audience doesn't know how he does the tricks.

Likewise, Google Search sometimes -- usually not, but sometimes -- produces uncanny results. One explanation is that Google is recording everything -- usually not, but sometimes -- and uses those illicit and illegal recordings to improve AutoComplete. A far more likely explanation is that Google users don't know how Google produces AutoComplete options, and are therefore occasionally surprised.

Google isn't listening all the time. But should it?

With rare and accidental exceptions, Google doesn't record your conversations without your knowledge or permission for the purpose of improving AutoComplete.

The best evidence for this is the fact that AutoComplete isn't always accurate or even helpful.

In other words, the problem with AutoComplete is not that it's "too good" too often, but that it's not good enough often enough.

If Google actually did listen in on your life, AutoComplete would be amazing. No, better still, it would be unnecessary.

If Google listened to, recorded and processed every audible voice and sound within range of your phone, tablet or laptop and applied that data to improving both Google Search AutoComplete and Google Assistant results, you would gain amazing powers of awareness, knowledge and foresight.

Maybe Google actually should record everything.

What if privacy was assured? For example, what if Google verifiably processed audio on the phone and did not retain the recordings, but was able to use every conversation to improve and personalize data. And what if there was an on-off switch, where you could set Google to listen always by default, or only when you threw the switch.


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