Google Now: Answers before you ask

The Google Now app peers at your data and offers suggestions.

Jacques Brinon/AP/Pool/FILE
Google's logo sits across a carpet at the company's office in Paris.

Good personal assistants tackle problems when asked; great assistants tackle them before being asked. That's the idea behind Google Now.

The smart-phone service shakes up the usual Google formula. Instead of answering your questions, it predicts what information will be helpful.

For example, if you're traveling to Paris, Google Now will remind you of the upcoming flight, provide directions to the airport, factor in traffic, check if the plane is on time, list the departure gate, and suggest a few French phrases to help you brush up on the essentials.

Each of these nuggets of information appears as a virtual notecard within the application. Once you've arrived in Paris, the outdated cards disappear automatically and new ones pop up, such as local restaurant listings, a public transit schedule, and photos of nearby landmarks.

How did Google know that you were headed to Paris?

For some users, it saw the appointment in your Google Calendar. Or maybe it spotted the airline confirmation in your Gmail in-box. The application knew that you'd landed in Paris thanks to your phone's satellite-positioning data.

Google Now marks an early step into "anticipatory data." The emerging field mixes everything that a company has learned about you (your schedule, correspondence, and purchases) with everything that it's learned about the world (maps, businesses, and flight databases). With this wealth of data, Google starts extrapolating. The results can be surprising, useful, and sometimes a little creepy.

In fact, Google Now may be the best argument for both sides of the privacy debate. It's a stark reminder of how much personal information people have willingly handed over to a single company.

But it's also a perfect example of the utility that comes with sharing personal details with a huge computer network.

Give Google a peek at your daily schedule and it will give you a glimpse of the future. Alternatively, if you rarely use Google services, Google Now is pretty boring.

After being an Android exclusive for close to a year, Google Now expanded to Apple iPhones and iPads. The service comes as part of the free Google Search app.

For more on how technology intersects daily life, follow Chris on Twitter @venturenaut.

The original version of this article ran in the May 27 issue of the Christian Science Monitor magazine.

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