Predictive Search Is Neither Cool Nor All That Creepy — Yet

The next big thing in technology is all-knowing apps that do what you want before you ask, also known as "predictive search," and the theoretical version of it is both creepy and cool, but so far it's neither. 

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The next big thing in technology is all-knowing apps that do what you want before you ask, also known as "predictive search," and the theoretical version of it is both creepy and cool, but so far it's neither. The possible future applications of the technology make it sound like it has the potential to fulfill some sort of sci-fi fantasy. "Glance at your phone in the morning, for instance, and see an alert that you need to leave early for your next meeting because of traffic, even though you never told your phone you had a meeting, or where it was," The New York Times's Claire Cain Miller gives as one example. She likens it to having a personal assistant — just like the the "royals have their valets." But so far, it's not quite there.

Google Now, the Siri competitor already incorporates the first iteration of this technology in Google Glass, which uses its predictive powers to send a flight delay alert as a Glasshole runs through the airport, for example. Some of the stuff it does verges on the cool. Like you can set reminders that trigger based on location, for example:

A couple days before you travel, it will show you weather in your destination, and when you arrive, currency exchange information and the time back home. Ask aloud that Google Now remind you to pick up milk next time you step in a grocery store, and an alert will appear when you are at Safeway.

Indeed, its location tracking abilities are the best part of the whole thing, say reviewers. But, that's just the beginning of the promise. "Google Now is supposed to be able to provide answers to your questions before you even ask them," wrote Salon's Andrew Leonard when Now came out for iOS back in May. That would be incredibly cool. Like, if it read some sort of shopping list and in the grocery store told you to head down aisle five for the milk. But it doesn't do that, yet.

As for the creep factor, Google Now has to read through Gmail and know a person's location to do its job. For some that's the "latest intrusion into our lives, another disruption pinging and buzzing in our pockets, mining our digital lives for personal information and straddling the line between helpful and creepy," writes Miller. The whole purpose of Now is to let Google in. "Denying it access to your life robs it of its purpose," wrote The Telegraph's Ian Douglas, who say Now is "straddling the creepy line."

If you think about it, Google reading your Gmail and Android understanding your location are things that the company already does. It mines e-mails for content related advertising and we willfully use the GPS function on our phones constantly. Taking it some steps further, however, could prove actually intrusive, noted Forbes's Kashmir Hill with the following notably aggressive and improbably examples:

  • If at lunch, Now advised you to start doing a job search because it checked in with your boss’s Now and saw he had scheduled some interviews with candidates to fill your position.
  • If on the way home, Now tracked your driving speed using its GPS system and notified relevant authorities that you were 15 mph over the speed limit most of the way home (and slow-rolled through two stop signs, instead of coming to a complete stop). And it took video, in case the po-po needs evidence.

But, more realistically, Now knowing some deep-down desires and saying them outloud, might turn some people off. Or the advertising aspect of all of this could go too far. Google CEO Larry Page has already said "The better we can provide information, even without you asking for it, the better we can provide commercial information people are excited to be promoting to you." Already Facebook's ads that know what you buy at the drugstore verge on creepy for some. Imagine if Google coupled that with Now, asking if you want to buy more pregnancy tests while at CVS because it read some e-mails about your sex life and also had data saying you brought a pregnancy test exactly a month ago.

So, sure, the possibilities are both cool and creepy. But so far, like with Google Glass and the augmented reality revolution, so far, predictive search hasn't quite fulfilled all the techie's dreams nor privacy advocates nightmares.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.