Google’s new Allo app has been launched amidst a lot of excitement and obviously some privacy concerns. On one hand, we have an app that comes with a built-in Google Assistant powered by Google’s AI, capable of helping out with contextual replies (which get better with time) and on the other hand, we have Google stating that conversations won’t be encrypted by default and will be stored indefinitely on Google servers so as to function as intellectual fodder for its AI.
As a peace offering, Google said users could opt to use the incognito mode which offers end-to-end encryption, however, you won’t be able to have Google Assistant partake in those conversations. It is clear that Google Allo is all about “convenience,” whether it is in the form of contextual responses or whether it is for looking up information that you’d like to share with the person at the other end of your non-encrypted, stored-on-Google-server-forever messages. When all is said and done, Allo poses a very clear and present danger.
The Privacy Nightmare
It’s no secret that Google goes through all data generated by users on its services, be it email, Hangouts or even search. This is how it’s able to serve up contextual ads and other nonsense. The very last bastion of privacy has been texting and voice calls and with Allo, we are set to lose out on one of those. If Allo achieves its goal of replacing your default texting app, and even Whatsapp, imagine the kind of intimate details of your life that Google will have access to. A wife telling her husband what brand of kitchen cleaning aids to get on his way back from work, a young excited college teen discussing with his best friend where to take his girlfriend on a date.
Let’s not forget the intimate conversations that take place between lovers. Angry messages from a mother to her son, the son’s depressed responses to his elder brother seeking counsel. All this data goes up into the Google servers, stored permanently, all to become public record in the event of a hack, or if law enforcement agencies, for whatever reason, were to get a subpoena for it. You could of course conduct all your interactions in the incognito mode, but without the added flare of the Google Assistant, what good is Allo anyway?
The Human Disconnect
Part of the charm that Google Assistant brings to Allo is its ability to throw up contextual responses. In the initial days, these are limited to “ok, LOL, Great, No problem” and the likes. However, with all the messages you allow Google to read, this AI learns and gets smarter. It will eventually be able to learn your conversational style and serve up more detailed responses.
Imagine a scenario where an entire conversation is carried out by means of auto-generated responses, all it needs is a trigger. “Hi, what are you up to?” could be followed up by one contextual response after another, till a plan is formulated. Did that make texting each other easier? Yes. Was there any human element to it? No.
Are we becoming such a lazy species that we consider articulating a response to a text message as a “task” that is better assigned to a machine instead? The reason an “I love you” or “take care, get home safe and call me” carries so much weight is because we know it is coming from a cognitive process signifying love and care.
An auto-generated contextual response is devoid of those emotions and while the message may still get across, the emotion behind it becomes questionable at best. It’s something similar to the situation where people don’t actually know or care for when your birthday is, but will wish you simply because Facebook told them to.
Thoughts for Consideration
Google Allo is an ambitious project by the Mountain View company, an attempt to bring true machine learning AI to the forefront of consumer technology. However, its implications go much farther than just convenience of search and respond. The balance that we’d managed to maintain between machine aided and human interactions is steadily starting to tip towards the former, which isn’t very healthy for inter-personal relationships.
We no longer remember phone numbers; we store them in our phone. We no longer remember birthdays because Facebook will remind us, unless someone sets their special day as private and you don’t wish them (because Facebook didn’t remind you) and now your friendship is over because you’re a horrible person. We no longer accept compliments from our near and dear ones, but will obsess over every single like we get (or didn’t get) on a poor-quality selfie on Instagram. As a species, we have been on somewhat of a downward spiral, but the introduction of Allo has brought us to a significantly worrisome milestone.