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Google Now Arrives, and With It The Age of Augmented Humanity


A developer reviews Google Now and Google Glass, and imagines a world where personal technology is removed from the foreground of our lives.

MINYANVILLE ORIGINAL Electricity has disappeared into the background -- at least in the developed world. We don't have to think about it, reboot it, line up at the store for the next big jolt of it, or become a fan of the utility company to get it. We are said to be entering an age where computing will slowly take the same route; it will disappear into the background, leaving us to improve on what we are good at: living and loving. Back in 2010, Eric Schmidt of Google (GOOG) called this vision "The Age of Augmented Humanity." Two years later, are we really entering this age?

It's hard to imagine that we could be when we're still battling with immunizations for our computers, still fixing bugs, still searching for upgrades to the next version, or still spending sleepless nights with a crashed hard drive -- not to mention dealing with the social stress of carrying an uncool, obsolete device purchased just less than a year ago. It gets even harder to imagine this age whilst our smartphones and tablets have acquired supreme powers to grab our attention anytime with an incoming text or email in the middle of dinner or a wedding ceremony.

However, sitting in the keynote audience at Google IO in San Francisco last month, it became clear that the process of connecting the dots has clearly begun. Two product announcements illustrate this very clearly: Google Now (available today) and Google Glass (a prototype with huge potential).

Google Now
Google Now is the new feature available on the latest Android (Jelly Bean) operating system. It promises to deliver "just the right information at just the right time," so I decided to "augment" myself with the latest Galaxy Nexus for a business trip to Mumbai from New York. With a simple swipe, Google Now launched and suggested the following practical information saving me from having to dig for it:
  • Map and expected travel time to the usual destinations I go to from this airport
  • Local weather
  • Currency exchange rate between INR and USD
  • Nearest places of interest
  • Time at home in NYC

But wait, there's more! Additional such "cards" kept popping up as I moved around. Public transit information appeared when I was near a train or bus station. I also received flight status based on my flight search, and "time to reach next appointment." Some reviewers have claimed that Google Now is better than Apple's (AAPL) Siri. Indeed, Google Now was able to understand spoken words much more accurately, despite my accent and background noise.

A Google Now screen

All this is obviously based on permissions I've granted the program. I was bold enough to be an early adopter of Google Latitude and have logged 250,000 miles of location history. Google Latitude tracks the location of the smartphone and puts it on a dashboard to analyze. It can detect home and work locations based on time of the day and time spent at these locations.

What this means is Google knows -- again, with my permission -- where I have been, where I am now, what I am scheduled to do in the next few hours, and what flights, sports, and places I might be interested in. Skeptics are bound to invoke the thought that all is well and good as long as Google stands by its promise of "Don't be evil," but think about your phone company, credit card company, bank, and the credit rating agencies that already know so much more about you, including who you call, what you buy, where you eat and your general financial health. Safeguarding such information has always been of paramount importance and so has been the need for your explicit authorization to use this information. No changes here.

Google Glass
Enough has been written about how Sergey Brin won the Internet with the live skydiving demo from the roof of Moscone Center. Being there live in the audience, I must admit, was one of the many exciting moments in life. Much has also been discussed about whether the stunt was a mere marketing gimmick or a defining moment for Google to create a new paradigm of wearable computing.

The most interesting Google Glass function demonstrated so far is that of taking photos in an incredible first-person point of view without having to pull out the camera. The photo shared by one of the Googlers on their Google+ profile is powerful at many levels. It captures the small moments in life without getting a device between you and the moment.

Sample image from Google Glass

Google Glass Explorer Edition will land in the hands of many developers in early 2013 (hopefully including yours truly). The potential of this platform is much more profound than just taking pictures. The potential applications in health care, manufacturing, education, news reporting, trading desks, and many more industries cannot even be imagined today.

It seems inevitable that Google Now will join Google Glass to get us started with the new paradigm. The supercomputing power of Google servers (cloud) will link personal information used with permission and deliver it to a head mounted display, providing "just the right information at just the right time."

Augmenting oneself with a simple wristwatch is something previous generations have experienced. Augmenting oneself with a smartphone has been harder for many -- given that this change arrived with the expectation to be online, working at all times and getting interrupted in life. There should be no argument, however, that we are indeed at the dawn of Schmidt's age of augmented humanity. Google's new releases are proof that computing is set to disappear into the background, leaving us to improve on what we are good at: Living and loving.

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