Sunday 22 July 2018

All the news that's fit for Google

'The new Google News brings together several existing news products into one app and website. It will analyse the constant flow of news information as it hits the web in real time, and organise it into storylines.'
'The new Google News brings together several existing news products into one app and website. It will analyse the constant flow of news information as it hits the web in real time, and organise it into storylines.'
Steve Dempsey

Steve Dempsey

Last week, Google held its I/O conference in California. As you'd expect, it was a technophile's dream. Google demoed how its personal assistant will soon be able make phone calls on your behalf and sound like a real human being. This new feature is powered, of course, by artificial intelligence (AI). Google photos will be upgraded to automatically suggest tweaks that improve your snaps. Again, this uses AI. Gmail will get a new feature called Smart Compose, which uses AI to suggest phrases as you type. And Google News is also getting a revamp, thanks to, you guessed it, AI.

The new Google News brings together several existing news products into one app and website. It will analyse the constant flow of news information as it hits the web in real time, and organise it into storylines.

Users can look forward to a daily briefing of five stories, personalised according to the users' reading habits. Simple controls will allow them to see more or less of a topic or from a particular publisher. There's a new visual format called newscasts, which offer different perspectives by bringing together articles, videos and quotes on a single topic from a host of sources. Plus, there's a feature called full coverage, which will allow users to get a deeper understanding of a story.

But it's not just readers that Google is courting with this new News product. It's batting its eyelashes at publishers, too. Google News promises to play nice with paywalls. Users will be able to subscribe for paid content with their Google account. There'll be no complex sign-up processes, no credit card numbers, and no new passwords. Users will be able to access paid content on all platforms and devices, on Google News, Google Search, and on publishers' own websites. Of course, Google will take a small cut of the subscription fee.

It all sounds impressive. But is this the future of news, or just another aggregator?

Well, the first hurdle that Google will have to clear is the filter bubble issue that Facebook fell foul of with its news feed. Personalised news services will always be guilty of the sin of omission. Read a news website, or a newspaper and something interesting happens: serendipitous discovery of news. You find and read stories that you may not necessarily have gone looking for. Sometimes these are about difficult societal issues, sometimes they're informed opinions on something you know nothing about, sometimes they're utterly flippant.

However, they've made it onto the page because the publication in question deems them culturally relevant. In designing a newsfeed that kept users hooked for as long as possible, Facebook ditched this principal.

Google has said an algorithm fed by a few hundred signals will have the job of surfacing stories from trusted sources. And it will undoubtedly add that the user has full control over what appears in their daily briefing or newscasts. But it will be interesting to monitor how these features are populated, and what behaviours the new Google news promotes.

Privacy is another issue that Google news needs to address. With GDPR and a greater awareness of how firms like to store and use personal data, it will be interesting to see whether most people will be willing to trade privacy for personalised news. Given the amount of information Google holds on us thanks to products like Chrome, Android, Gmail and more, chances are convenience will win out.

Perhaps a more difficult issue will be keeping publishers sweet. Along with Apple, Facebook and a few others, it's a gatekeeper, controlling access to digital news. With Facebook deprioritising news, Apple likely to launch its own digital subscription product soon, and Google owning its own chunk of the audience, how long before publishers stop relying on their digital frenemies as online intermediaries? How long before they realise they should have a direct relationship with their customers?

But the most interesting question relates to Google's all-pervasive AI crusade. Google's stated aim here is to save users' time by taking troublesome tasks off their plate. But let's look at the tasks they're trying to speed up. Making phonecalls. Writing emails. Staying informed.

Google may be able to shave nanoseconds off these activities, but are these really the tasks we need help with? Wouldn't we all be better off if we took the time to communicate with each other and stay informed, rather than outsourcing these activities to the apogee of surveillance capitalism?

How much personalisation will it take before the world becomes a very impersonal place?

Sunday Indo Business

Business Newsletter

Read the leading stories from the world of Business.

Also in Business