Google Allo and the privacy conundrum

Google finally launched its much hyped messaging app Allo in an already crowded market dominated by Facebook-owned WhatsApp. Google, however, is betting on it smart AI based “Google Assistant” to make its app stand out. And unsurprisingly, this has led to a vociferous clamor about privacy concerns on how Google is going to store your data on its servers and how it can fall in wrong hands, with even Edward Snowden now jumping in to give his 2 cents. Privacy preachers are out all guns blazing pontificating not to use the app. But I don’t think this is anything but heavy-handed didacticism.

Every day, we share reams and reams of data about ourselves and our personal lives on a large number of platforms. Right from sharing “What’s on your mind” to your “Google Searches”, your location, your mood, your pictures, your messages and almost every other aspect of your life. Privacy in today’s world is a facade unless you are living under a rock! For example, how many of us use the incognito mode for each and every search on our browsers? How many of us disable location saving and autocomplete features in our apps and want to fill the data every time? I am sure most of us just don’t care. And this is not being cavalier or lazy but actually being selfish.

As humans, we value convenience over privacy. The short term advantages of letting our apps store our data far outweigh the long terms disadvantages which anyways are highly improbable. We want instant gratification and not delayed security. And for that reason, even though there are a lot of people grumbling about the skin-deep security of the data we share, they themselves aren’t going to change anything in their lifestyle. And they can’t if they have to live a normal social life with their family and friends. Therefore if Google is using your messages to make life easier for you, it seems like a fair deal to me. And don’t be puzzled when these sanctimonious privacy preachers tell you that they are using it to improve their AI bot because a better AI bot will help none other than us.

Let’s understand one thing, today’s AI technologies need humongous amounts of data to be able to learn about us and then help us. This kind of data cannot be simulated as there are billions and billions of different combinations of real world scenarios that the AI needs to be trained on for it to be really autonomous and useful. These combinations can only be obtained by letting the AI access real world data and interact with humans who create these scenarios in the first place. That’s the reason why Google’s DeepMind is playing Go with real world champions and not software engineers, why Tesla is testing the Autopilot on real cars on actual roads and not in simulation laboratories and why Google Allo needs to read and process your messages to be able to really add value to your conversations.

You cannot have a smarter AI but not want to share your data for it to learn, at the same time!