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Google Now's Latest Trick: Outsourcing Your Brain

You can stop thinking now. That's Google's job.
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You can stop thinking now. That's Google's job.

Google took a step toward enabling us to outsource our brains with a new feature that taps into our personal data to automatically offer advice on what we should do or know next. The couch potato web is here, so just lean back and let Google take things from here.

Figuring out when to leave for a meeting, what to order at a new restaurant, or when to squeeze in a trip to the gym can all be decided for you by Google Now, a search feature for smartphones unveiled Wednesday at Google's I/O developer conference. Google Now makes personal assistants look like milkmen -- quaint symbols of a simpler, slower time.

A Google executive demonstrated how Google Now could check his calendar, location and traffic conditions to tell him precisely when to leave for a meeting, or see his flight was delayed and suggest he go to the gym -- knowing full well the average length of his workouts and the time needed to get to the airport.

"Google Now gets you just the right information at just the right time, and all of it happens automatically," Google's director of Android product management Hugo Barra explained during the conference keynote. He demonstrated how Google could display the final score from a soccer match -- not because you ever asked, but because it knows you've searched for Real Madrid in the past.

While Google Now offers convenience, future features could tell us what we should know practically before we realize we don't know it, according to Babek Parviz, who has helped build Google Glass. It won't be long before Google is instantly sending us the knowledge we need to appear wiser, wittier, smarter, and more on-point to our friends.

Google Glass, the augmented reality eyewear developed by the secretive Google X lab, could seamlessly show you facts you need to support your heated arguments about the future of Medicare, or why China's growth rate will fall. The "glasses" could display the salient statics on the miniature screen suspended in front of your right eye, like a feeding tube of facts hardwired to your frontal cortex.

"Someday, we would like to make this [accessing information] so fast that you don't feel like you have a question, then have to go seek knowledge and analyze it, but that it's so fast you feel like you know it. That fast," said Parviz. "It may not be today or tomorrow, but that's our aspiration. We want to be able to empower people to access information very quickly and feel knowledgeable about certain topics."

Google touts its mission is to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." That has become obsolete: Google is moving beyond the information business into the knowledge trade. Google Now and Google Glass showcase a brave new big-data effort to turn facts into decisions and even make judgment calls on our behalf, from what to eat to when to leave work.

That doesn't mean that Google is making us stupid. Far from it: If anything, the web giant is giving us super-human smarts. Its algorithms and data centers can process far more information than our puny human brains, and do so more quickly and more efficiently than we ever could. Google Now promises to make us less reliant on our flawed judgment, misleading emotions, and faulty memories, and, as a result, more competent, more often right, less error prone, and more on time.

We won't make the mistake of ordering the wrong dish at the restaurant (Google Now can tell us a café's specialty using its collection of Zagat and user-generated reviews). We can avoid showing up late to a job interview (Google can tell you the 101 is backed up). And we can win arguments with informed facts, not biased opinions or screwy stats (If Parviz's vision for Google Glass pans out).

But then again, to err is human. Will our bionic brains snuff out some of our individual quirks and annoying-but-endearing shortcomings? Will we miss our mistakes? Or fudging facts? Or forgetting? White lies could become extinct -- there'd be no excuse for being late or missing a birthday in the Google Now era -- and serendipity could suffer a blow.

Letting Google into the driver's seat while we set our minds on autopilot also raises the question of who we listen to. We may eventually ask algorithms for advice, instead of friends. We already turn to Google for answers. Perhaps soon it'll be solving our problems too.

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