Google Mines Our Data For Future Product Ideas

This week in San Francisco, Google held its annual developers conference. It was there that the search industry giant laid out its vision for its future and ours.

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

You're almost through the week; it's Friday. It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep. This week in San Francisco, Google held its annual developers conference. The Internet search giant debuted updates for just about everything from Google+ to Gmail to Maps, and gave talks on gadgets like Google Glass. And as NPR's Steve Henn reports, Google laid out its vision for its future, as well as our future.

STEVE HENN, BYLINE: Google's annual developers conference is probably the best chance to get a sense of where this giant company is headed. When Amit Singhal, who runs Google Search, walked out on stage, there was a big, blank screen above his head with four, tiny words: The end of search.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

AMIT SINGHAL: Yes.

HENN: The audience in the vast Moscone Center hall fell completely silent.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

SINGHAL: It's a provocative title, indeed, especially coming from Google, but I believe with good reason.

HENN: Today, Amit Singhal says Google is rolling out a new ways to search, including one where you can just talk to your computer.

JOHANNA WRIGHT: Amit was talking about hot wording.

HENN: Johanna Wright is vice president of product management at Google.

WRIGHT: So, no hands. OK, Google. Show me things to do in Santa Cruz.

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: Here are popular attractions in Santa Cruz.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE FROM AUDIENCE)

HENN: But simply talking to a computer, to search, is just the beginning.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

WRIGHT: OK Google. How far is it from here?

COMPUTERIZED VOICE: The drive from your location to Santa Cruz beach boardwalk is 73.9 miles.

(CHEERS, APPLAUSE FROM AUDIENCE)

HENN: Think of about what Wright actually said: How far is it from here? Google could answer that question because Google knew where Wright was standing, and it put her question in the context of her previous search. Google knew it, in this case, was Santa Cruz. And if she goes to Santa Cruz and is standing on the boardwalk and asks...

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

WRIGHT: How tall do you have to be to ride the Giant Dipper?

HENN: Google will know Wright is talking about a roller coaster. Again and again this week, Google showed off products that were possible because this company is now collecting information about us in all sorts of ways. No longer is a search query simply made up of a string of words.

Now, in many ways, your location, your past behavior, your history, your interactions with other people are all part of one constant, ongoing search; a search to reach you with new, useful information or ads at key moments. Take Google Maps.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

BERNIE SEEFELD: Wouldn't it be awesome if you could build billions of maps, one for every user?

HENN: Bernie Seefeld, at Google, says Google's new maps will adapt to you individually. His Google map of San Francisco will highlight his favorite restaurant, Frances. Mine would look different. And his map will offer personalized recommendations.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

SEEFELD: Like, Bar Tartine shows up because it's similar to Frances, and I like Frances, so it's a recommendation for me.

HENN: Whether you find this kind of thing creepy or cool, there's an enormous amount of technical wizardry behind all of this. Brian McClendon at Google says the company is constantly piecing together bits of information to gain new insights.

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

BRIAN MCCLENDON: This idea of generating data from other data is fundamental to what Google does.

HENN: And Google is using similar computer science techniques to create even more detailed, nuanced pictures of us, its users. For example, Google+ now offers a service where Google will organize your vacation photos for free, automatically picking out the best shots. Vic Gundotra, who runs Google+, says the services recognizes important landmarks, whether or not people are smiling, and even...

(SOUNDBITE OF CONFERENCE)

VIC GUNDOTRA: ...who's important to you, who's in your family circle. And we apply appropriate social boosts so that your wife and your children are in the highlights.

HENN: To do that, Google has to run facial recognition on your photos - try to identify who are you are traveling with, who are your friends are, who you're closest to. And in the process, those photos become another piece of data for Google to mine. Steve Henn, NPR News, Silicon Valley.

INSKEEP: As regular listeners to this program know, Google data mining activities raise privacy concerns for many people, and so does one of the company's most talked about new products. Google Glass is getting attention from Capitol Hill. Eight members of Congress are asking the company how it plans to protect people's privacy once Google customers are walking around with little cameras mounted beside their eyes on the equivalent of eyeglass frames.

In a letter mailed yesterday, the lawmakers asked Google what it would do to prevent Google Glass from unintentionally collecting data about Google Glass users, as well as the people who come into the camera's view without their consent. The company declined to comment, but has previously said that data gathered by the new device will be handled in accordance with existing privacy policies.

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