Hey Google, can you say a prayer for me? Hey Google, can you go to work for me today? I’m not in the mood. Hey Google, tuck my kids into bed. What if in the near future we are encouraged to leave these sorts of tasks to a Big Tech company? Far-fetched? Maybe right now. But what about ten years from now? Right now, Google says its digital assistant can perform over a million different actions to make your life easier. And the number is growing every day. But where does it stop? Will it ever stop? Why would it stop? As long as someone deems something a pain point – industry-speak for perceived problems companies want to fix for their customers – it’s possible a machine could be programmed to complete the task. Meanwhile, we get lazier, more entitled, and more intellectually dumb by the day until we are so numb and so immune to the problem that far-fetched actions like prayer, parenting, job and school life, relationship building, and other essentially human tasks, get farmed out to AI and leave us void of fulfillment and joy.
Google’s latest ad campaign to promote the Google Assistant is a measure of where we are on this journey. The ads show people engaged in various activities that Google thinks could be enhanced by their technology. There’s an overwhelmed dad after his kid’s successful but messy birthday party. A woman in the shower who thinks of something she wants to write down. Someone stuck in traffic trying to ignore all the alerts blowing up on her phone, looking for a moment of peace. A surfer dude enjoying a sunset who wants to take a selfie. A husband who has forgotten the code to his own home’s security system. Even an astronaut in space who wonders if she forgot to lock the door to her house before she left. In all these situations, the words “Make Google do it.” comes up in big bold lettering. But do we really need Google in these situations?
Here are some human solutions to the “pain points” Google presents in its ad campaign, no tech device required. That dad surveying the aftermath of his child’s party? Many a parent has been in that predicament. He needs to take a deep breath and plow through that to do list with gusto, fueled by the joy of celebrating his child’s life and perhaps enlisting the help of his family members. And the woman in the shower with the thought she’s itching to write down? She could use a waterproof notepad to record her revelations. The Aqua Notes brand actually started with someone who enjoys thinking in the shower who developed a reliable way to write things down in that environment. A whole line of products that wouldn’t exist had the inventor made Google do it. What about the person stuck in traffic trying to ignore all the bleeping alerts on her phone? That’s easy. She just needs to go into her smartphone and turn off all the notifications. Then she’ll have those moments of peace and quiet she is yearning for. That surfer dude enjoying his moment in the sunset can just focus on enjoying that sunset, since he’ll remember it vividly in his mind for years to come. As for the husband who has forgotten the code to his own house’s security system, he could use a mnemonic system that converts numbers into easy to remember words. Or he could use his senses or an association to keep the number in mind. And if all else fails, he could turn to his wife, who can also employ some of these techniques to remember that important number. Finally, what of that astronaut in space who suddenly wonders whether she locked her front door back on earth? In the extreme solitude of space, I suppose one does get ample opportunity to reflect on earthly life. If she is really concerned, she could pass a message along to NASA who should be able to send someone to her house to lock it with a hidden key if needed. After all, her mind needs to be focused on the tasks at hand, such as collecting rock samples or safely maneuvering through zero gravity.
In trying to solve all our perceived pain points, Big Tech companies like Google are dismissing the amazing computer that comes pre-installed in every single person born in the world. Our brain is still dozens of times more powerful and efficient than the world’s most advanced supercomputer. It fits neatly between our ears and leaves a very small electrical footprint – about the power of a low-wattage bulb. According to National Geographic, neurons in our brain create and send more messages than all the phones in the entire world. And it never stops working. In fact, new brain connections are made every time we form a new memory. So all that thinking and memory making we do during the day is actually building and strengthening our brain. And each time we learn something new, we keep our brain neurologically plastic – a measure of our brain’s ability to change and adapt to our environment and circumstances. This can pay off as we age, helping to reduce the effects of age on the brain and reduce the risk of brain-related illnesses such as dementia or Alzheimer’s disease. In short, the more we give Google the cold shoulder, the more we can think for ourselves, which is good for our mental health both now and in the future.
In the middle of one of the ads for Google Assistant, we see a young woman cozy by the fire with her beau. She thinks: do I really need to break up with my boyfriend? Google’s answer appears on the screen: “That one’s on you.” The intended message is that Google will stay out of your personal relationship actions…for now. But the more we use Google to think for us in many other aspects of our lives, the more diminished our relationships with other humans will become. Tech overuse and addiction is causing us to slowly lose the ability to relate to people effectively. It’s one reason a new Cigna study reveals epidemic levels of loneliness in the U.S. right now, with adults aged 18-22 being the worst off. It’s part of the reason suicide levels in the U.S. are at a 30-year high; suicide is the second leading cause of death among people aged 10-34. The more thinking we leave to tech, the less we leave to ourselves. The more we interact with tech, the less desire we have to interact with each other.
What to do? Don’t throw all your gadgets out the window. You just have to show them who’s boss. You don’t need a digital assistant. You have an amazing assistant already. Use it! And train your kids to use theirs as well. Amazon is now marketing their digital assistant directly to children with the new Echo Kids Edition. Don’t fall for the hype or the convenience.
Hey Google: I’ve got this. Thanks anyway!
This post was also published at Mind Matters, a publication of the Walter Bradley Center for Natural and Artificial Intelligence.