Google Now’s creepy condolences

Dave Mark, The Loop:

Reddit post by user Barney13:

I was playing around with the ‘OK Google, show me some of my photos from…’ So I tried some places I had recently visited, San Francisco worked perfectly. Then Spain, all good, this is awesome! Then I get emotional. Google made me cry. I went for ‘OK Google, show me some of my photos from Nice, France’. She came back saying this to me:

“According to Gmail, firstly let me express my deepest sympathy to you, your mum and the whole family at your loss. Your dad was a fantastic man, as I am sure you already know.” […]

It turns out she read out a snippet from an email I received from a family friend soon after my Dad’s death. But the fact that she knew to say it was pretty staggering, it was in the 3rd paragraph of an email sent to me back in December 2010.

I find this creepy beyond belief. But also amazing. But creepy.

Do I want Siri to know all my personal details, my pet peeves, secrets vented in anger?

Let’s get this out of the way: this is an engineering marvel. It really is shocking that humans have come this far.

Now for the creepy aspect — I wouldn’t even want a human being to approach me with such condolences, let alone any computer that has all my emails — that too from a company that makes money off of knowing me better. What if I simply don’t want to reminded of the fact that I lost a loved one five years after the tragedy?

Pardon the grim narrative. Instead, allow me an analogy: You and a friend speak a second language, Italian, say. You’re at a cafe in England debating the price of a sandwich in front of the person at the counter — an Englishman — who awaits your order. The price isn’t acceptable to you and you don’t want the Englishman to know that. You converse with your friend in Italian, instead of English: ‘Fancy the price for sticking some chicken and cheese between slices of bread?‘. Your friend responds, ‘Exactly, for a sloppy place like this?

The Englishman interjects, in Italian — ‘May I suggest the pasta instead?’.

That’s what it feels like to me. This isn’t a violation but it sure feels like invasion of an assumed personal space. Sure the informed Google Now user knows their email is being processed to know more about them but would they like it to go this far?

(Incidentally, Facebook can predict when you are about to break-up with your partner before you do. But does it choose to show you that information?)

Lastly, I want to touch on the ‘human’ element in AI. If I absolutely must have an AI know about my personal life in this manner, I’d rather have Siri or Cortana handle the task. Apple and Microsoft have tried hard to add personality to their AI. This adds more empathy in their condolences than the dry, text-to-speech implementation in Google Now. (Siri and Cortana are human-esque names too).

John Gruber’s thought on Google’s April Fool’s day prank is relevant:

Exemplifies everything that’s wrong with Google’s company culture — they are institutionally socially inept.

In Uncategorized by Mayur Dhaka