Google has put supercomputers in the pockets of millions of Americans and plans to have self-driving cars soon navigating the nation’s roads. Naturally, the tech giant says they’ll next have cloud-connected microphones inside ceilings everywhere.
That’s according to chief Google engineer Scott Huffman, who made his rounds among tech reporters this week to reveal what he has already envisioned for the Silicon Valley company’s future.
Details are still quite preliminary, but Huffman predicts that before long his company will control a vast network of microphones embedded in ceilings across the world, the likes of which could give the ever-expanding audience of Google customers an easy but eerie way to interact with a virtual assistant.
Think of it as Google’s take on the Siri personal assistant developed by engineers at Apple for the Android’s top competitor, the iPhone. Instead of asking your phone for help, however, Google’s high-tech digital deputy could be just a whisper away.
“Computing is becoming so inexpensive that it’s inevitable that there will be a ubiquity of connected devices around us, from our lapel to our car to Google Glass,” Huffman told reporters at the UK’s Independent. As that technology becomes increasingly more accessible, Google wants to add another item to that mix of inner-connected cyber smart tools, and making microphones a part of that infrastructure is already on their agenda.
Google users wouldn’t have to rely on their cloud-synced calendars to alert them with a text message or email about an important business meeting, for instance. Instead, Huffman told the Independent, “Like a great personal assistant, it will interrupt you and say ‘you’ve got to leave now.’ It will bring you the information you want.”
“Imagine I can say to a microphone in the ceiling of the room ‘ Can you bring up a video of the highlights of yesterday’s Pittsburgh Steelers game and play it on a TV in the living room?’ and it works because the Cloud means everything is connected,” he told the paper. “I could ask my Google ‘assistant’ where we should have lunch, that serves French food and isn’t too expensive? Google will go ‘Ok, we’ll go to that place’ and when I get in my car it should already be navigating to that restaurant. We’re really excited by the idea of multiple devices being able to talk to each other.”
Speaking to the Guardian, Huffman said his engineering department at Google doesn’t want to stop with microphones, either. "We are looking to a future where we have a whole variety of devices," he told the newspaper. "We have a super computer in our pockets, but also one in our watch, one in our glasses, maybe on our lapel as well as our laptop. Some of those have a screen and a keyboard but some won't, and we're seeing dramatic growth in the numbers of people interacting through voice recognition."
"I don’t have a microchip in my head – yet," he added to the Independent.
And according to Huffman, that futuristic reality might not be too far away either. "It's a cultural thing, getting used to a technology like this, but there will be a whole set of devices built around it," he told the Guardian. "Two to three years ago we crossed the line from a demo to a real product, so now at least most of the time it can understand what I say. We're still [at]work on the recognition of accents, and there are a litany of problems. But when it works, it is magic."
One of those problems, of course, is a relatively new one spawned largely by the classified national security documents released to the media by former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden. Leaked National Security Agency files have suggested that data held on Google’s servers is vulnerable to government eavesdroppers, who have been linked to gaining access to that intelligence either with or without the Silicon Valley giant’s permission.
“We take privacy and security very seriously,” Huffman told the Independent. “Our goal is to keep users’ information private and use it in a way that helps that user,” he continued, adding to the Guardian that the encryption protocols used now to protect the security of data going in and out of Google’s servers will be applied similarly to any audio that microphones might pick up. As Snowden leaks have shown the world, however, the NSA has been successful at compromising that data in an unencrypted state, and is likely working to thwart any sort of increased security mechanism employed by Google or their contemporaries.
Regardless, Huffman told the Independent that “five years from now” he sees himself having a conversation with a Google virtual assistant, and the company will be able to pick up microphones cues and “answer you the same way a person would answer.”
“Google will understand context in conversation but it’s not an armchair psychiatrist. You can’t have a conversation about your mother. Google can’t talk to me about how I feel about things until it understands factual ‘things’. We’re just getting started understanding ‘things’ in the world,” he said.