My son had one of his first successful interactions with Google the other day. How his 4-year-old brain understands the transaction is probably far removed from the truth, but he lives in a world where he can ask the internet to play him a specific song by a specific artist and it plays. The “internet” I’m referring to is Google Assistant, which is on our WiFi-connected Google Home speaker in the kitchen, and linked to my Google Play Music account. The song in question was Sucker by the Jonas Brothers, but that’s not important.
What’s important is that I believe access to the world’s music to be a human right. Music makes you feel and affects your senses and synapses like nothing else. He (my son) loves to dance. His sister loves to sing and her music teacher is always praising her talents with instruments. Hell, I would’ve given up a lot to have almost any song I could think of at my beck and call. Instead I grew up alongside the evolution from cassette tape to CDs and, ultimately, digital streaming. Sure, the quality isn’t quite the same, but the quantity more than makes up for it.
Now there’s software on my phone that can perfectly isolate the bass guitar on Ghetto Superstar without all the dubbing, echo effects and karaoke mode vocal masking that 15-year-old me had to resort to. And there’s other software that allows me to manipulate that riff into something completely unique and layer all manner of audio samples on top to create a full track at CD quality, that I can list online to play back on a streaming service.
Google is also on my phone and all over the recently announced Pixel 4, which is a device that takes the idea of always aware ambient computing to new heights. You see, by taking away the fingerprint sensor Google is reinforcing the idea that you don’t need to touch the device to access the power of Google. Building that computing power into the forthcoming (US Spring 2020) wireless Pixel Buds is another statement of intent. Apple opened Pandora’s always in and always on computing box with the popular Airpods and now the big G is following suite.
Hell, they’ve even built Assistant into the next generation of WiFi mesh routers.
It’s clear that Google wants you to not think of the Internet and its artificial intelligence services as something you need to access through a screen, but rather something that lives with you, is always around and permeates your life in ever more intrusive ways. Like when you’re having dinner and your 4-year-old wants to listen to a specific song. Or when you’re about to leave the house and your daughter argues that she doesn’t need her school jersey.
Every year the world’s biggest search engine pushes the boundaries of what we believe to be computing and turns it into something more natural. And I’m here for it.
Ambient and aware computing is the thing they promised us in Star Trek when the captains could dictate their logs to thin air and people could be traced anywhere on the ship.
We’re already carrying super computers in our pockets and the evidence is that the big tech companies want these devices to stay out of sight when we’re going about our everyday lives. Microsoft wants you to control PowerPoint presentations with its iteration of smart earbuds, whereas Apple want you to interact with Siri to do simple things like increase or lower the volume of its ubiquitous AirPods.
Owning the future of user interface is now clearly a three horse race between Google, Apple and Amazon. Google is quite far in the lead with its massive data war chest gathered over years of being the gatekeeper of the internet. Amazon has money to burn from other revenue streams and will insert itself into all online purchasing transactions. Apple has finally turned a corner with the excellent iPhone 11 and is now once again competitive on price as well as feature set – arguably the best camera on a phone and significant improvements in battery life covers the most pertinent user needs.
We won’t be getting the Pixel 4 or any of the recently launched Google devices in South Africa, but I treat this as a reference point for the future of our computing. Android is the dominant platform in this country and the ripples from the Pixel pebble that Google just dropped into the computing pond will reach our shores regardless, and long before the wave of Alexa devices ever crests the horizon.