Books to paintings: 6 Google products to fetch knowledge

Since starting out in a garage in 1998, Google has grown steadily and is an online giant today. Here are six Google products that has made the company a treasure of knowledge.

tech Updated: Aug 26, 2018 15:11 IST
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The logo of Google, a unit of Alphabet Inc., sits on an Apple Inc. iPhone smartphone in this arranged photograph in London on August 20, 2018. (Bloomberg)

Since starting out in a garage in 1998, Google has grown steadily and is an online giant today. Here are six Google products that has made the company a treasure of knowledge.

Google Images

When Jennifer Lopez walked the Grammy’s red carpet in 2000 wearing a sea-green Donatella Versace with plunging V neckline that went down to her crotch, she literally changed how we see the world. That dress was all anyone could talk about for days; millions of people were searching for images of the dress. And all Google was offering were the usual page after page of links. Users were frustrated, the company realised this was something it had to fix, and that’s how Google Images was born.

In 2015, Google president Eric Schmidt would admit that the green dress was when they realised they needed actual images to appear in an image search. Later upgrades would create the tile of images you now see in every search, and, in 2011, the even-cooler reverse-image search option. This means you can upload an image to the Google search bar today and find out what it is, where it came from, and get higher-resolution versions.

A map showing San Francisco is seen on an LG Electronics Inc. Urbane Smartwatch running Google Inc.'s Android OS in San Francisco, US, on May 28, 2015. (Bloomberg)

Google Maps

If you commute, this is something you use every day. We check maps obsessively, even on the way home, to see how much traffic there is, whether there’s a shorter route, how much time the ride is going to take. The app began as a C++ program designed by two Danish brothers, Lars and Jens Eilstrup Rasmussen, at the Sydney-based company Where 2 Technologies, in 2003. A year later, Google Inc acquired the company and turned the web app into Google Maps. You can now use it on any web-enabled platform—not just to map your way to a location but also to search for restaurants, hospitals, petrol pumps, even ATM machines around you.

Tapping on an F&B venue will display how well you ‘match’ with it,based on the food and drink preferences you’ve selected in Google Maps, places you’ve been to, and whether you’ve rated a restaurant or added it to a list. Which is either awesome or very 1984, depending on your outlook.

Google autocomplete

Danny Sullivan, public liaison for search at Google wrote in the company’s official blog that autocorrect, on average, reduces typing by about 25%. Cumulatively, they estimate, it saves over 200 years of typing time worldwide per day! Some of its options, however, ranged from offensive to hateful and had to be fixed followed widespread uproar, about two years ago. For example, if you typed ‘Are jews..’ or ‘Are women…’ the autocomplete suggested ‘evil’. ‘Islamists are…’ was autocompleted with the word ‘terrorists’. The results, Google had explained, were based on the most frequently-searched terms.

There is now a very strict autocomplete policy that eliminates sexually explicit options not related to medical, scientific, or sex education topics, removes stereotypes against groups and individuals on the basis of race, religion and several other demographic factors, and does not offer violent predictions or dangerous and harmful activity as suggestions.

Still AI works in unpredictable ways that remain difficult to control. Recently, Canadian-British author Cory Doctorow took to Twitter to report that when he tried to text his babysitter, “Hey! Are you free to sit…” autocomplete suggested ‘on my face’.

Google is reportedly rolling out a fix for this prediction behaviour on its Gboard keypad.

Google facial recognition

It’s a bit creepy when you’re looking at a picture of friends and the cursor prompts you to tag each face by name… how do they know, we used to wonder! How do they know that’s Charu!

Google’s Facial Recognition is a machine-learning-based software that uses an algorithm to try and ‘auto-recognise’ similar faces based on the user’s history, uploaded content and past posts. It’s been making people uncomfortable since its rollout in 2015, in more ways than one. In its first year, Facial Recognition came under fire for tagging two black people as “gorillas.” The company issued a public apology and tweaked its algorithm. By way of explanation, Yonatan Zunger, Google’s chief architect for Social, took to Twitter to say that it wasn’t just mislabeling African-Americans. “Until recently, [Google Photos] was confusing white faces with dogs and seals. Machine learning is hard,” he tweeted.

Meanwhile, internet activists and civil rights groups worry that it is using biometric tools in ways that invade privacy and create the potential for misuse. The company has powered on, regardless. In June, Google released a new version of its internet browser, Chrome 67, that will allow websites to use biometric markers such as fingerprints or even facial recognition in place of passwords.

Google Library

In 2004, Google decided to make as many books as possible accessible to all via its website. The company started by scanning books in academic libraries, with the idea of making part of the material available online for free. Google scanned 30 million volumes, coming a close second to the world’s largest public library, the United States’ Library of Congress, which contains 37 million books and printed works.

Google scanned collections from Oxford, Stanford, the New York Public Library and reached across continents, into collections both public and private. The project was short-lived.

In 2005, the Authors Guild and the Association of American Publishers sued over violation of copyright. In 2008, Google proposed a settlement that would allow the books to be available to the public, for pay, and to institutions. Author Ursula Le Guin called it a “deal with the devil”.

In October 2015, a US court declared Google Books legal. Though snippets of some books are available at no cost, much of its content is only accessible if you pay.

Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Nights

Google Arts and Culture lab

In 2011, the Google Culture Institute partnered with the Yad Vashem World Holocaust Center to take its archives — a total of 14,000 documents, photographs and objects — online. This sparked the idea for the Google Art Project (now the Google Arts & Culture Lab), an initiative to digitise art and artefacts from around the world, so they could be viewed via the internet.

The project was led by Mumbai-born Amit Sood, the director of the not-for-profit Google Culture institute. So far, partnerships have been formed with 1,500 museums and cultural institutions across 70 countries — from the National Gallery in London to the Metropolitan Museum in New York, Uffizi in Florence and the Hermitage in St Petersburg.

The Chhatrapati Shivaji Maharaj and Bhau Daji Lad museums in Mumbai, Indian Museum in Kolkata, National Gallery of Modern Art in New Delhi and Salar Jung in Hyderabad are among 10 museums from India that have participated too.

The project was formally launched in 2013, with exhibits on the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Holocaust and Apartheid. A mobile app followed in 2016.

Tools like 360-degree views, virtual maps and audio and video clips let you zoom in so much you can see the weave of the canvas in a van Gogh work and trace each furious brushstroke.

But there have been concerns about the lack of curation, as users are left to navigate the extensive collections on their own. And the ‘dumbing down’ of art. In January, a selfie feature was added to let users upload pictures of themselves and find their ‘museum doppelgänger’. Sood argues that this is part of the mission — to democratise art and make it relatable.

Here too, there have been charges of racial bias, with people of colour saying their results were limited or showed exoticised figures.

One undeniable upside? You can log on in the middle of the night, ‘walk’ into New York’s Museum of Modern Art and stare in silence at van Gogh’s Starry Night.

First Published: Aug 26, 2018 14:45 IST