Without missing a beat
Another summer day at Mountain View, CA, another day for stunning news in the world of mass consumer technology. And, possibly worryingly, another faculty of a global brain emerging from the familiar old Internet.
Originally perceived just as an advertisement-driven index/search giant, Google Inc. has progressively become identified with some of the most pervasive phenomena of contemporary Internet. Today, the corporation has announced "Google Heartbeat", a new offering that definitely does not pale in the string of the other free Google services many of us have embraced - and grew to depend on - in our daily lives. After the immensely successful communication and office systems such as Google Mail, Google Calendar or Google Docs, after getting most of us used to easy geographical navigation anywhere on this planet using Google Earth, Google Maps, Google Street View and Google Apartment View, and even inviting us to do virtual travels around some celestial bodies (Google Mars, Google Moon, and Google Sky), after surprising everybody by launching its own slick and powerful Google Chrome browser, topped even by two full operating systems - one for desktop and the other for mobile communication devices (Google Chrome OS, Google Android), the shiny new Google Heartbeat likewise does not disappoint in terms of simplicity, accessibility, and usefulness.
Not a match-making service
Although some of the first leaks in the blogosphere, just a few days ago, indicated an advent of a killer app match-making service, Google Heartbeat turned out to take on our heart issues in quite a literal manner. Google Heartbeat does pretty much stand up to its name in that it basically monitors most of the basic characteristics related to your heart. It can report your heart beating rate in any moment, or at any point in the past. Based on your individual patterns, the system then can recognize many of your physiological and emotional states, and their disorders. For example, Google Hearbeat senses when you seem to be tired, excited, surprised, disappointed, uncertain, angry, in pain, or whether you are too drunk to drive. It can infer your sleeping, eating and other life-style habits. Drawing on the motion sensor information available in most smartphones, it can detect a person's fall or crash. It can warn you when your heartbeat becomes irregular or in any other way indicates potential cardiac problems. Indeed, Google Heartbeat can even notify authorities, or pre-selected people and companies, the very moment when you die.
But that is not all. Google's interconnectedness with countless other data channels, combined with the massive scale of deployment, further augments the usefulness of the service far beyond that of just another social gadget. For example, based on all it knows about you, and extrapolating from statistically significant data correlations gleaned from millions of other people and their temporal and spatial circumstances, Google can pretty well estimate your chances of having a heart attack today - or at any given activity any time at any place - and warn you in advance accordingly. Inferring from statistics of heart problems in other people with similar age, gender, BMI, phenotype, lifestyle, etc. (gleaning anonymized data from Google Health), and in combination with all known cardiac issues in your particular geographical location (monitored by Google Latitude), in your family members and ancestors, under the current weather and other external circumstances (e.g. from Google News and many other services), and in the given activity (Google Mail, Google Calendar, Google Buzz, Google Voice, Google Docs, individual behaviour patterns, etc.), Google instantly produces your individual probability index of getting an heart attack (various seizures, myocardial infarction, etc.) as well as fine-grained information about probable cardiac murmurs, dysrhythmias, and other heart conditions definitely worth paying attention to.
As easily as you can monitor your own health or level of fitness, Google Heartbeat social network functionality allows you to continuously monitor the well-being characteristics of other people, such as your children (do you need to check whether your son is really bullied by classmates or whether your daughter suffers from those suspected attacks of anxiety?), or your spouse (why did your husband have this spike in happiness and heartbeat rate when he claims he had been running an errand?), your ailing grandmother (look, she just fell again in the garden of the retirement home after symptoms of low blood pressure!), or indeed any other loved ones or friends in your contact list. Consent is required for privacy reasons, although it is of note that everyone tagged as "Family" and "Friends" is monitored by default after enabling the service.
Obviously, usefulness of such data reaches beyond the individuals. Hospitals may want to have more doctors on duty on days more heart problems are expected, the military may want to check the general level of vulnerability of its (or another?) nation, one may muse that politicians might be tempted to call elections on days when people feel statistically more happy (and gullible?) than otherwise, and gossip magazines will surely be bound to try their luck in retrieving useful scraps of data on famous people and then claim to detect even more than what this technology provides ("Passionate Heartbeat In The Mayor's office: Beyoncé Sharing More Than Location?")
In a fashion typical for most of the other user-friendly and intuitive services, Google Heartbeat does not need any installation, nor does it require you to buy new gadgets or subscribe to other services (although using the Google Health service obviously can have its advantages). In fact, many users may not even notice they are using it unless they are patients with heart conditions, or sportsmen looking for optimal training, in which case they can couple Google Heartbeat with specialized devices, such as chest straps, heart-monitoring wrist watches, or heart sensors built in smart fabrics (e.g. in women's sports bra). For basic functionality, the service gleans your heartbeat from tiny regular spatial alterations whenever you hold your smartphone (as many of them are now equipped with a motion sensor / accelerometer), from the pulsating changes in colouring, caused by blood flow, in your ear lobes, palm or fingers pressed on the phone camera(s), and of course there is virtually no limit in terms of additional monitoring devices allowing for increased data quality and precision.
Further, it is not necessary to keep monitoring precisely or continuously. To illustrate this point, let's have a brief look at Google Latitude. It can monitor your location by your Internet provider's IP address, or when you happen to pass through an open Wi-Fi hotspot, or by the currently active mobile phone tower location, or by GPS. The precision of your location will vary considerably in and between all these data sources. And often you simply won't be on Internet and away from your phone. However, the statistical precision of your location will increase simply with the number of even imprecise measurements. In the same way, even if Google skips many of our heart beats, as it were, with enough data over time its predictions are bound to be surprisingly accurate.
Google Hearbeat clearly signifies important news in many domains of biotelemetry, notably for electrocardiography (ECG). However, Prof. Adriaan van Oosterom, the President of the International Society of Electrocardiology (ISI), has warned that "this and similar simple monitors can not, by definition, come anywhere near the quality of monitoring provided by professional medical instruments" and the World Health Organization (WHO), in a press release on its website, claims that "popular reliance on medical gadgetry without supervision of qualified clinicians may bring about more problems than solutions". These reservations, however, do not seem to impede the so far exponential growth in the number of Google Hearbeat users, certainly thanks to a host of free apps available for most mobile phone systems, including Android, iPhone, Symbian, etc.
"Big Brother" infrastructure
Quite predictably, the new service has provoked yet another wave of protest from privacy groups claiming that Google not only takes over more and more aspects of Internet, but also blatantly encroaches on our own personal freedom, our choices, our lives.
Verging on the paranoid, some critics point out that while until now Google followed your conversations, plans and thoughts, with Google Health - and now with the new Google Heartbeat - it has made a move for our physical bodies. Other extremists venture to accuse Google of building the ultimate infrastructure for a "Big Brother" type of surveillance system that is more than eclipsing its fictional precursor from George Orwell's novel 1984. Surely, not everybody will agree with these points, yet, it would be hard to argue against the more sober claims, supported by a healthy number of free thinkers and even academics, that our very freedom may be the price with which we pay for Google services.
On the other hand, there are proponents who claim there is nothing wrong with developing and using global services in the increasingly inter-connected, globalized world we live in. In the end, they say - slamming sceptics and paranoics alike - as long as we don't do anything illegal, we have nothing to be afraid of, even if our every move were continuously monitored.
Having learned from the Street View Wi-Fi snooping scandal, after having some services blocked by whole countries (India, Saudi Arabia, China, etc.), Google certainly pays very careful attention to all allegations of privacy breach and surveillance. Its official position has always been as that of strictly a service provider who simply strives to develop and maintain the best possible tools without attention or appropriation of the content they gather - be it our search queries, e-mail messages, or our vital details.
Put it another way, while each of the Google services can be turned off as easily as on (just log into your Google Account and look for the appropriate checkbox), it is clear that many, and quite possibly most of us will not do it. The reason is clear - these services are hard to refuse due to their useful effects, high quality, constant availability, and zero cost. Look, for example, at the Google Latitude service: we know we can easily switch it off in order to make it stop tracking our physical location coordinates. And, somewhere, let's face it, we are well aware that the recording does carry on anyway: automatically, relentlessly, effortlessly - whether in the name of homeland security, hired private eyes, or for the one who pays more, or simply "just in case". So why not using the benefits of this and other services - albeit in a short-term, limited, and utilitarian fashion - and turn a blind eye to their potentially treacherous downsides.