AS EXPECTED, THE opening keynote of Google’s I/O 2017 developer conference was a doozy. For two and a half hours, CEO Sundar Pichai and a handful of execs rattled off a staggering list of futuristic features and products: A camera that understands what it sees! AI tools a high-schooler can use to help detect cancer! An omniscient, omnipresent virtual assistant! Independent, incredible, immersive virtual reality! To watch the address was to feel like the future had just arrived, all at once, right before you eyes.
Then you go down the list of actual new things, the stuff you can try right now. An Assistant app for iPhone, a way of sending simple email replies without typing them, Google for Jobs. And you realize I/O felt less like Jobsian product reveal and more like a TED talk: good ideas, educated guesses, and impressive research, but precious little practical application. The same could be said for last year’s event, too. Remember that awesome Google Home launch video? You’re still waiting for many of the things it promised. It was a vision for a product, not a product.
Google’s not alone. In many ways, the entire tech world finds itself in limbo. The internet, smartphones, and Facebook conquered the world, and are now ubiquitous. Meanwhile, the next wave of technology lingers just around the corner: Self-driving cars ruling the road, a world will filtered through augmented-reality glasses, and artificial intelligence in every person, place, and thing. All of that and more is definitely coming. Someday. And every day it doesn’t, it feels late.
In fairness, that first wave wasn’t immediate either—the internet stumbled through Web 1.0, the iPhone needed a few years to sink in, and Facebook started as the domain of Harvard kids. And in many ways, that revolution was easy. “The iPhone was this singular thing,” says Mark Rolston, co-founder of design firm Argodesign. “It was a black, five-inch piece of glass, that held in it a lot of what you used to do on a computer.” That made it instantly understandable. You could put it away when you didn’t need it, and it didn’t alter or occlude your perception of the world.
Now Google and others hope to convince people to strap new things to their face, trading this world for theirs. These companies want to know everything about you, so they might connect you and everything you hold dear to their networks. In exchange, they promise some vague improvement to, well, everything.
Google’s announcements made clear that the world isn’t waiting on some still-impossible technology to make all these fantastic things reality. Just the opposite. Neural networks and deep learning let computers identify everything in your photos faster than you can. Amazon Echo and Google Home hear better than most humans. Cars drive themselves. Your VR headset can map the world as you move through it.