Liz Gannes

Recent Posts by Liz Gannes

You Don’t Have to Be Famous to Ask Google Questions About Yourself Anymore

Google has been working for years, and especially recently, to make search more conversational. Increasingly, users can talk to Google like they would to a person, and not in caveman-speak “searchese.” For instance, you can ask follow-up questions: “How old is Justin Bieber?” and then “How tall is he?”

But now you don’t have to be an entity in Google’s massive knowledge graph for this kind of natural-language query to work. If you use other Google services, particularly Gmail, Google knows a lot about you. And, starting this week, English-speaking U.S. users can now ask Google, “Is my flight on time?” “When will my package arrive?” “What are my plans for tomorrow?” and “Show me my photos from Thailand.”

If you’re logged in, Google will know who’s asking, and if you’ve stored this information with Google — for instance, via airline confirmation or package-tracking email — Google will dig it up and reply without you ever having to remember your flight number or dig out your 15-digit tracking code.

This is available for desktop, tablet and smartphone, and via text and voice search.

It’s an extension of similar tools within Google Now, the company’s mobile assistant that tries to guess what information will be useful to each user. But there’s no way to actively query Google Now. The new launch also draws on an opt-in trial for the past year, where users could add their own Gmail index to personalized search.

Certainly, this is not a service for all people. If you don’t like entrusting all your data to Google, you won’t like it. If you don’t like being reminded that you’ve entrusted all your data to Google, you might not like it. And if you don’t remember to talk to your search engine as if it’s your personal assistant, you’ll forget that this even exists.

By the way, the Google-monitoring group Consumer Watchdog this week is making noise about a Google court filing in a case equating Gmail advertising to wiretapping that cited a Supreme Court decision that “a person has no legitimate expectation of privacy in information he voluntarily turns over to third parties.”

Consumer Watchdog called this “a stunning admission,” though it seems in line with the stance Google has had for nearly a decade.

But still, Google’s practice of sending in its machines to read your email is only growing in scope. Now it’s not just looking for keywords to match with ads, it’s also parsing flight reservations and package deliveries.

Regarding the newly supported search queries, a Google spokesman said, “This information is just for you — secure, via encrypted connection, and visible only to you when you’re signed in to Google. Likewise, you can also control whether you want the service on or off. Whenever you don’t want to see it, simply click the (globe icon) at the top of the search results page to turn it off for that search session. To turn it off permanently, visit the ‘Private results’ section in search settings.”

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Just as the atom bomb was the weapon that was supposed to render war obsolete, the Internet seems like capitalism’s ultimate feat of self-destructive genius, an economic doomsday device rendering it impossible for anyone to ever make a profit off anything again. It’s especially hopeless for those whose work is easily digitized and accessed free of charge.

— Author Tim Kreider on not getting paid for one’s work