Welcome to my annual Google I/O Keynote snarkfest.
In years past, I’ve used Ars Technica’s live blog as my info source, but this year it appears they’re not at Google I/O. So all the snark that’s fit to print comes to you courtesy of Gizmodo’s reporting.
My apologies, by the way, for the later-than-usual post. Blame it on Rufus. No, not really. Blame it on Google for scheduling the I/O keynote speech at 10:00. But I did have to duck out to take Rufus to the vet for a checkup. He’s fine. The keynote is over. I’m caught up. Enjoy your post.
First up, Google is bringing augmented reality to search on phones. The demo involves getting 3D models in your search results. You can rotate them to see all sides and you can place them in the real world with an assist from your phone’s camera. Why do I suspect the porn industry is going to be all over this technology?
Seriously, though, it’s part of an expansion of the Google Lens technology we’ve been seeing for the past few years and integrating it into search. Other enhancements to Lens include the ability to highlight popular items on a recipe and displaying videos of recipes being made when you point the camera at a printed recipe.
Does anyone really want these features? If I’m at a restaurant, I’m going to pick the dish that sounds the tastiest, not the one the most people have ordered. My tastes aren’t necessarily yours, after all, and sometimes it’s the odd little dishes tucked away in the corner of the menu that are the most interesting. As for the cooking videos, I try to keep my phone in the case in the kitchen. I’d rather not wind up preparing pixel ‘n’ cheese or nexus stew. Silly of me, I know.
Remember last year’s big feature? Duplex, in case your memory is as short as mine. That’s the feature that let your phone make reservations on your behalf. Did anyone use it? Maybe a few people will try this year’s iteration which can make car reservations and buy movie tickets. I can’t say I’m thrilled at the possibilities this opens up.
Assistant, the voice behind “Hey, Google,” gets an update this year, as well. It’ll be able to figure out what you mean by personal references. Want directions to your mother’s house? Just ask. Because it’s good to know that, when you can’t remember where your relatives live, Google can.
Slightly more useful is a new driving mode, intended to reduce distractions. Speaking as someone who nearly got rear-ended yesterday by someone looking at the phone in her lap, I think the only legitimate “driving mode” would be one that turns the damn phone off as soon as you start the engine. Not that anyone is going to implement that.
Google is very, very sorry for whatever biases their machine learning technology has revealed. They’re working very, very hard to reduce bias.
Let’s be honest here. The problem isn’t the machine learning tools. It’s the humans who select the data that the machines learn from. Fix the developers’ biases and the machines fix themselves.
More privacy features. Which seem to boil down to giving people more ability to delete whatever Google knows about them, but precious little to prevent them from learning it in the first place.
Oh, wait, one exception: there’s going to be an incognito mode for Maps, so you can get directions to the doctor’s office without Google being easily able to tie the request to your earlier searches. They’ll still know someone searched for the office and there are a number of ways they could tie it to you, but at least they’ll have to work for the data.
I’m a big fan of incognito mode in the browser, and I hope they roll it out everywhere sooner rather than later–and that’s no snark.
Generating captions for videos on the fly seems like an interesting, if somewhat niche application. Applying the same technology to phone calls, though… If Google can pull that one off, it’d be a big win for anyone who’s ever tried to take a call in a noisy environment or even just sworn at the lousy speaker in their phone. Yes, and for those whose hearing isn’t the aural equivalent of 20/20 vision.
Looks like there’s a related effort to teach their voice recognition software to understand people with conditions that affect their speech. The basic idea there is good–but Google needs to beware of inappropriate extensions of the technology.
Correctly interpreting the speech of someone who’s had, say, a stroke, is a good thing. Suggesting that someone see a doctor because there are stroke-like elements in their speech is moving into dangerous waters, ethically speaking.
On to Android Q.
Support for folding devices, of course. That was inevitable. Moving apps from one screen to another, either literally or figuratively (when the device is folded and the screen dimensions change, for example).
Improved on-device machine learning, which will let phones do voice recognition themselves without help from Google’s servers. That’s a win for privacy and data usage.
Dark mode. Personally, I dislike dark mode; I find white text on a black background hard to read. But I know others feel differently. So enjoy, those of you who like that kind of thing.
More privacy features, including new controls over which apps have access to location data and when they have it.
OS security updates without a reboot? Would that Windows could do that. It’s a small time-saver, but worthwhile.
Focus Mode–which will also be retrofitted to Android Pie–maybe somewhat less useful: you can select apps to be turned off in bulk when you turn on Focus Mode. If the goal is to get you off your phone, this seems like a fairly useless diversion, because who’s going to put their important apps on the list? It does tie in with expanded parental controls, though, so there’s that.
Like your Nest thermostat? That’s cool. (sorry) Now all of Google’s smart home gear will be sold under the Nest name. I guess they figured with the demise of “Nexus,” there was an opportunity for an “N” name to distinguish itself.
So, no more “Google Home Hub”. Now it’s “Nest Hub”. Expect similar rebranding elsewhere. It looks, for instance, like Chromecast (remember Chromecast?) will be moving to Nest. NestCast? Or something stupid like “Google Chromecast from Nest”?
And, speaking of Pixel–we were, a few paragraphs back–we’re getting cheaper Pixel phones, as expected.
The 3a and 3a XL, starting at a mere $399, and coming in three colors. (Yes, we see what you did there, Google.) The usual black and white, naturally, but also something Google is calling purple. Looking at the photos, I’d say it’s faintly lavender, but maybe it’s the lighting.
Judging by the specs, it sounds like you’ll get roughly Pixel 2 levels of performance, except for the camera, which should be the same as the high end Pixel 3 models.
And, unlike Apple, who preannounce their phones*, the Pixel 3a devices are available online and in stores now.
* Remember signing up to get on the list to pre-order an iPhone?Fun times.
Bottom line: once again, we’re not seeing anything wildly new and different here. Granted, some of the incremental advances over the past year are large, but they’re all still evolutionary, not revolutionary.
And no, there weren’t any hints about what the Q in Android Q stands for.
Have you read STET by Sarah Gailey (nominated for a Hugo for Best Short Story, available free here: https://firesidefiction.com/stet)? It touches on some issues you mention. (I loved it.)
I have now. Very good. Worthy of the nomination. (Obligatory writer’s note: if you read the story at Fireside Fiction, it’d be good to toss them some money so they can keep publishing stories online.)
Probably more relevant to last Thursday’s post, but yeah. Despite all of the discussion about ethics in autonomous vehicle development, everyone seems to be treating it as a one-off conversation, rather than a basic consideration for any new technology.