Google Knows What You're Doing Tomorrow

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 14 2013 6:35 PM

Google Knows What You're Doing Tomorrow

Google personalized search
Google knows what you're doing tomorrow

Screenshot / Google.com

Google has taken the next step in its transformation from a Web-search engine to the Star Trek computer. The company announced today that it is rolling out new features that will allow you to use Google.com as, essentially, a search engine for your own information.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

Until now, if you typed the words “what am I doing tomorrow” into the Google search bar, you’d get a series of Web results for pages whose titles include that phrase or similar keywords. With the new features, provided you’re logged into Google and maintain a Google Calendar, you’ll see something more like the image above.

The wording doesn’t have to be exact. You’ll get the same results if you ask, “what are my plans thursday,” while “what’s on my agenda for the week” will bring up a longer list of calendar entries. For now, the feature will work for five different categories of queries:

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  • Flights
  • Reservations
  • Purchases
  • Plans
  • Photos

The catch, of course, is that it will only work if Google already has access to the information you’re asking for. So if you store your photos on Google Plus—which, incidentally, my colleague Farhad Manjoo highly recommends—a Google search for “my photos from Thailand” will bring up the snapshots you’re looking for. But if you keep them on Facebook, no dice. Likewise, if your Amazon and iTunes accounts are linked to your Gmail address, then you’ll see a list of your recent purchases from those sites when you search Google for “my purchases.” But if they’re connected to a Yahoo email address, Google won’t be able to find them.

Google power users will note that none of this is entirely new. The technology is lifted from Google Now, which has been available on Android phones since last July and on iPhones since April. And the new Web-search features are very similar to those that Google has been testing for quite a while through its desktop  “Gmail search” field trial. Indeed, you can try them out today by joining the field trial, if you don’t want to wait for Google to complete the full public rollout. There are a couple minor differences, though. Unlike the field trial, the public rollout won’t search your Google Drive account for the time being—just your calendar, Gmail, and Google Plus photos. But it does have some bells and whistles that the field trial lacked, including support for voice search.

We’re still a long way away from the day where you’ll be able to hold a full conversation with Google, let alone ask it questions like, "What should I do tomorrow?" The new features do not yet even incorporate the “conversational search” technology that the company first showed off in May. But whereas Apple’s Siri and desktop Google search once seemed like two very different tools, the latter appears on its way to incorporating most of the features of the former. When it starts cracking jokes, look out.

From a convenience standpoint, the new features make a lot of sense. And they don’t really raise any new privacy issues, since Google is only mining information that you’ve already given it. Still, there’s a good chance that some users will be surprised, as they try out the new features, to see just how much Google knows about them—and how good it’s getting at applying that knowledge. No wonder Google took care to prominently feature the line, "Only you can see these results." Also reassuring: While Google may know what you're doing tomorrow, it doesn't yet seem to know what you did last summer. Or if it does, it's keeping its trap shut for the time being.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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