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Sunday, January 10, 2010

Built By Google

Pete logs onto his desktop computer. It’s a “dumb” netbook built by Google and called Google Chrome Superbook 5, with a fast startup time of 0.3 seconds, the point at which the Google engineers figured further optimizations were not useful, in terms of limitations of human perception. The mouse next to the computer is also made by Google. It includes some technical wizardry that Pete was happy to wait for when he ordered it online in the Google web store: the mouse automatically logs him into his Google account based on his fingerprint, skin color and more, falling back to a password prompt if anything’s off.

The netbook doesn’t contain a browser, at least, that’s not how people talk about it – the netbook is the browser, and every computer is a netbook, so people just call that thing they surf with “the computer” or “Google,” and nobody but web historians ever use the word browser anymore. The Google phone Nexus Nine is ringing, and Pete – without picking the phone up with his hand, but simply looking at the holographic 3D projection of his girlfriend shimmering above the phone – says “I’ll call you back later, got some things to do on my Google.”

When Pete opens his Communication account, he has 12 new messages. Google Communication combines emails, voice messages, collaborative documents and everything else into a single unified stream, ordered by automatically personalized prioritization cues. The top priority right now, Communication decided, was a phone text message from Pete’s boss earlier that morning. “You got to come in early today Pete, the bots are acting crazy.” Pete works from home, as do most of his friends, so he opens up his augmented reality clothing store hooked up to the webcam. He usually works in a simple morning bathrobe but his colleagues won’t ever notice, thanks to the realtime 3D overlays they’ll see instead. It’s nice of Google to release the augmented reality overlays for free, and the AdWords powered sponsor labels on the clothes are a price Pete’s willing to pay.

“What’s with the bots?” Pete asks his boss. Bots are semi-autonomous agents doing most of the work at Pete’s company. Programming them is the job of talking to them, giving them clear orders. No traditional programming syntax knowledge is needed for that, so people mostly just call it “giving orders”. Last night, Pete ordered the bots to put the company’s web presence through a thorough security check, but apparently some of them got the idea that this would include hacking the server. Pete quickly solves the issue, amending his phrasing to exclude such cases... bug fixed, and Pete’s doing some surfing now.

All the web’s in Pete’s native tongue, and he can’t remember a time when it was any different. Whichever site he visits, be it originally created in Japanese, Hebrew, Botspeak or whatever language out there, Google Translator transforms into the language Pete’s is most fluently with... not just text, but also imagery, audio content in videos, everything. The Google Translator ships straight with the superbook with no way to switch translation providers, but Pete’s happy with its results. He’s used to encountering strange language on some sites and there’s a constant barrier of cultural misunderstandings, but people by and large got used to all of this, and whenever there’s a verbal fight about to erupt, it’s easy to blame the issue on those “pesky translator software” and make peace.

These days the Google Translator is even nice enough to automatically transform image content or news prioritization based on your current position and cultural track record, so that, for instance, a news article might show a different photo or headline in China, or India, than it does in the US, or Russia. Even search results adjust to your preferences, so that your discoveries won’t shock you, but be in tune with your general understanding of how the world works, and your understanding of who’s in power, and why, and what the findings of science are, and so on. Pete is old enough to remember the times back when there was no Google TrulySafeSearch and he remembers that life was a lot more nerve-wrecking back then. Relaxed as he is now, he clicks on one of his favorite sites: Google Games.

Google Games is an immersive 3D world where players interact through their avatar, often a tuned but somewhat resembling version of themselves. That every game is actually a way to crowdsource computational jobs, Pete doesn’t mind... he just wants to have fun after his hour of work for that day. “Hi there Sue!” Pete waves to his digital girlfriend. People started to accept polyamory in virtual settings, and neither is Pete’s real life girlfriend jealous of his activities, nor he of hers. Sue, for all Pete knows, may not even be a human, though in Google Games, it’s not polite to ask about that. Either it’s a software program which is then disappointed that you would put too much value into people having a physical representation, or it’s a human, who, by your question, might figure you think of them as “robotic.”

Today, Sue waves back and start to engage Pete in small talk. Embedded in this small talk are questions which Sue – yes, a software program – asks only for one reason: to transmit Pete’s answer back to the Google core, where they are compared with other answers, analyzed, filtered, stored, evaluated, and generally put to AI-feeding use. All that’s no secret, in fact, it’s right in the Google Games policy you’ll sign to play in this world for free. Later on, Pete enjoys a game of 4D ping pong with Sue. Cars are passing by, each with an advertisement mediated through Google. While Pete may think he’s just playing ping pong, the micro attention the advertised brands get is measured both by the tracked eye focus, but also by the Google mouse checking for signs of accelerated heart beat. PPA, or pay-per-awareness, means that if there’s measurable excitement, the advertiser has to pay.

“Have you heard the news? The president’s sick today,” Sue says, though it’s the software module formerly known as Google News which is speaking through her now. Powered by Google-paid freelance journalists who feed its system, the Google News of the day feels as natural as talking to a friend, and indeed for Pete, it is exactly that. “No, tell me more... what happened?” Sue registers the interest and will adjust her small talk to focus more on political issues the following days. The longer Pete talks to her, the more cars he’ll notice passing by, so it’s crucial for Sue to entertain him.

“The president’s had to ponder a world issue for longer than usual,” Sue replies. Pete noticed that Sue lately started calling most news incidents “world issues,” perhaps in order not to upset him or occupy his mind with too many details. It didn’t really matter to him either: the president, for all the power it had considering it ruled not one country but all united countries, was such a superb program that surely it wouldn’t make mistakes. Considering its AI was provided by Google, and constantly fed with real-time data of the world through Google’s many sensors – moving cameras, voice recordings, satellige imagery, network traffic, search trends – how could the president ever make a mistake? And if it did, what was the alternative? Certainly it was impossible to put a human in that position; humans may have a creative edge sometimes and good intuition, Pete thought, but weren’t really known for the size of their brains or the speed of their computations.

One hour of work and seven hours of play, and Pete calls it a night. Pete logs off his desktop computer. It’s a dumb netbook built by Google and called Google Chrome Superbook 5, with a fast shutdown time of 0.3 seconds, below the point at which Google engineers figured further optimizations were not useful, in terms of limitations of human perception. The mouse next to the computer is also made by Google. It emits a soft humming sound as Pete moves his hand away from it. Time to sleep... tomorrow’s a new day with Google.


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