Google’s ambitions have recently been even more vaulting than usual. Android, the company’s open-source smartphone platform, is its biggest coup. In August, Google was reportedly activating 200,000 Android units a day. The potential market is measured in billions of users. Next to that, the bizarre stories about Google that broke this week may sound like small potatoes. Google has bought a stake in a wind-farm project. It is working on a driverless car. It has a “Google price index” that measures inflation. But these are not publicity stunts or pet projects engaged in by “playful” employees in their spare time. They are at the core of this innovative and troubling company’s mission. It is no longer possible to think of Google the way we used to – as a competitor of the Yellow Pages or to the operators who answer directory inquiries. Google is coming to compete, along an ever broader front, with government itself.
Google’s projects are always less eccentric and more hard-headed than they appear. For a company as cash-rich as Google, buying a three-eighths stake in Atlantic Wind Connection makes sense. The $5bn project, described as a “superhighway for clean energy”, will lay down a wiring network off the east coast of the US that will make it easier to convey any captured energy ashore.
“We’re willing to take calculated risks on early-stage ideas and projects that can have dramatic impacts while offering attractive returns,” wrote Rick Needham, the company’s director for green business. “Calculated” is the key word. Wind power is not an early-stage idea in the most important respect: government has already budgeted billions for it. Although the federal government’s role in the project is not fully spelt out, it is possible that Google’s participating in Atlantic Wind Connection will be no more a “risk” than a construction group’s accepting a government contract to build a dam.
The news that Google has already run 140,000 miles of road tests on its self-piloting cars is stunning, but it, too, makes sense. If you wed the older technologies in Google Maps (“reading” the infrastructure of roads) with the newer interactive ones that GPS companies use (“reading” human activity on roads), you are halfway there. Google’s self-driving car has “Lidar” sensors, which generate, instant by instant, three-dimensional renderings of the world around it. What remains is mostly a mechanical problem of ensuring the car can “react” to, say, pedestrians in a timely way.
Google’s scientists claim this will reduce traffic fatalities. Maybe so. But that is far from the largest change that such innovations have in store. Google’s projects call to mind the title of a book on bioethics that the French geneticist Axel Kahn wrote a decade ago: Et l’homme dans tout ça? The same principles of data aggregation, pattern recognition and artificial intelligence that Google applies to the highway can also be applied to human interactions. This will have revolutionary consequences.
This week Hal Varian, Google’s chief economist, mentioned at a meeting of the National Association of Business Economists in Denver that Google now keeps a “GPI”. By tallying billions of inputs from its search engines, it can track inflation in a much more timely way than government agencies – although not yet quite as accurately. Its basket of goods differs from the one used for the US consumer price index, and its results differ, too. (Google’s index shows deflation in the US and mild inflation in the UK.)
This is part of a pattern. It has recently been asserted – and not just by Google’s engineers – that the company’s search queries can predict flu epidemics as accurately as the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and can get an earlier, more accurate reading of unemployment trends than the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Eventually Google will iron out the wrinkles in its inflation measure. What resources will the government then be able to tap that would ever allow it to compete with Google? Should Google’s principals be allowed to trade on this information? If Google is better at predicting inflation, unemployment and influenza, it will probably be better at predicting crime, terrorism and political unrest. What government that claims to be vigilant against terrorism would fail to use Google’s data?
The line between Google and government is destined to blur. You can say that such lines have been blurring, through privatisation, for a long time. But there is a difference between the privatisation of tasks that started in the 1980s and the privatisation of analysis that Google portends. Google is going to have a special role in shaping the ends of government. Google strengthens a key argument in favour of privatisation: why should a sclerotic and bureaucratic government deny itself the tools so plentifully available in the private sector? But Google weakens a key argument in favour of freedom: that a modern economy is too complex for a single entity to make sense of. Privatisation used to mean decentralisation. It no longer necessarily does.
History would lead us to expect one of two resolutions over the long term. Either Washington will turn Google into a utility (railroads are the model) or Google will take up a privileged position as a private company with public prerogatives (for example, the old Bank of England or the Dutch and English overseas trading companies). One way or another, the result will be a closer union between power and specialised knowledge. If the Tea Party movement is enraged at being bossed around by experts, wait till they see what technology has prepared for them next.
The writer is a senior editor at The Weekly Standard
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