May 21, 2009

Be there or be Squared

Google Zeitgeist is an annual event which took place in Hertfordshire this week. Some of the most important people from the worlds of politics, engineering and technology came together to explore ways in which they could improve society. People attending included Eric Schmidt, Larry Page, Richard Branson and Prince Charles who called the internet one of the “most important tools in history”.  Thanks to Al Gore for inventing it (he couldn’t be there unfortunately).

There was a big focus on the web being used for the power of good with Larry Page saying “I’m very optimistic about the things that can be fundamentally improved in the world through technology, it has the power to change things.” Such as his bank balance.

The British paper The Telegraph listed a few of the topics covered:

Disease tracking

Google believes it can track the spread of diseases, such as swine flu or even the common cold, by analysing search data. The Flu Trends website, operated by Google’s charitable division,, aggregates search information to estimate the levels of flu activity in cities across the US. Google claims it can identify patterns and trends of disease spread up to two weeks faster than traditional systems. The aim, says Google, is to provide an early-warning system for outbreaks of influenza. Expect Google to play an increasingly significant role in public health, both through disease tracking and even potentially becoming a central repository for medical records: Google Health is already a popular product in America.

Home appliances

The idea of a “Google fridge” is perhaps not as implausible as it sounds. Google’s dominance of web search means that it is in a unique position to really drive efforts to build an “internet of things” – a world in which all objects, from books to food, are embedded with a data tag and linked to the web. In the wireless home of the future, “smart fridges” would be able to read these tags to know when milk is past its sell-by date, and when to order more food from the supermarket.

A “Google fridge” could also provide recipes at the touch of a button, deliver the latest special offers from supermarkets or local restaurants, and even serve up step-by-step videos showing how to make a soufflé. There might even be advertising revenue associated with some of that, so perhaps it’s not completely unlikely.

Self-driving cars

“Google has a broader mission than people might think,” says Eric Schmidt, the company’s chief executive. A mission that could, perhaps, even extend to cutting the number of deaths on the road? “If we really put our minds to it, I’m pretty sure we can reduce those deaths,” Page says. He touched on the topic of self-driving cars – vehicles embedded with complex navigation technology and spatial sensors that can plot the obstacles (and other traffic) around them. Many car makers are already experimenting with self-driving cars, but Google’s mapping and geo-tagging expertise could provide information that’s crucial to success.

The internet

Larry Page has often said that his first love is computers – developing new programs and software that enable computers to do more. He says that the next evolution will be in web browsers becoming more like operating systems; they will simply be the way in which we access computer-based services, from games and word-processing, and that all of those tools will live online, “in the cloud”. Expect Google to continue to build on the foundations it is laying with products such as Docs and web browser Chrome. As it seeks to create a new, web-based computing empire, and to improve its search powers, Google’s dominance may yet come to rival Microsoft’s.

The Times has been covering the event in their blog. Read a report here.

squaredOf course Google wanted to showcase new technology and one  hot topic right now is the buzz around a potentially rival search engine – Wolfram Alpha. Google presented Squared which is still being tested and offers interesting new ways of searching. Check out a video of it in action on this page.

See you at the even next year.