Google is inching toward solving the problem of memory.
The company on Tuesday announced a few new features for Google Photos, its gallery and photo-sharing app. But only one of the additions really matters. The app will soon let you apply custom labels to people, allowing you to search for, say, "pictures of Mom and me in Chicago" and see just that. That transforms the app into something a little bit closer to a second brain: Ask it to show you something very specific, and suddenly it can.
The search giant hinted at this change in an interview with The Huffington Post months ago. Now it's certain. When the app sees a face it doesn't recognize, it will ask three little words: "Who is this?" A Google representative said this week that Android users can start labeling people on Wednesday, while the update is "coming soon" to iOS and the web.
The update is a bigger deal than it might seem.
Currently, you can search Google Photos according to basic terms. If you type in "golden retriever," the software is smart enough to find any pictures you've taken that fit the bill, but it doesn't know how to find "Damon" or "Alex" or "Grandpa."
The app is able to recognize photographs of individual people and cluster them together, so you can click on your sister's face and see a bunch of pictures you've taken of her. That's not such a graceful solution, though, because you're stuck if you want to search for something like "photos of me and my sister."
Here's the easy criticism of the new update: You can already tag and search through photographs on Facebook, a platform that's been around for much longer that you're probably more accustomed to using. But Facebook only searches names that match an "authentic identity," while Photos has no such limitation. You can label a person however you want, so if you call your kid "Cupcake" in real life, you can go ahead and call your kid "Cupcake" on Google Photos.
(Please don't call your kid Cupcake.)
Google Photos is also supposed to be private in a way Facebook usually isn't. The idea is to set the app to automatically upload every photo you take on your smartphone and keep them online on Google's secure servers, where only you can access or share them with trusted individuals. You may not want your little kid's mug on Facebook, but you might feel a little more comfortable handing the pictures over to Google, where you're not connected to hundreds of "friends." (If you have any qualms about images of your child being online, you probably should do neither.)
All of this is boiling down to one thing: Google Photos, in a sense, can help serve as a second memory. Ideally stated, the app can be a tool to conjure moments from the past for those who might struggle to recall them.
The irony isn't lost that some studies suggest search engines can damage our ability to recall information. But I believe there's reason to be optimistic here. I've written before about how I wish technology and software like Google Photos existed for my dad, whose mind and memory were consumed entirely in the span of months by a brain tumor. He never forgot our names, so imagine if he had grown up in a time when technology like this was becoming commonplace, as it is now -- perhaps he could've searched "pictures of me and Damon" on an app like Google Photos to recall better times.
It's a little sappy and idealistic, sure, but there's no denying that the technology does have the capacity to work in this way. Google has designed a tool that can build upon our own memories and serve us visual recollections in an era when we can hold a small telephone up at eye level and snap unlimited high-definition photographs of the world and people in front of us. The ability to teach the app the names of the most important people in your life is a leap forward for the product, and one that could meaningfully impact many people, should they choose to use Google Photos.
Of course, there's an elephant standing right in the center of this big, fluffy room. Google is a massive corporation that makes billions of dollars every single year, and a lot of it comes from advertising rooted in the information we willingly -- if not consciously -- hand over to Google when we use services like Gmail. Our memories, photos and videos become just another type of data when we upload them to Google Photos. While the company vows to keep this data private, who knows how the information contributes overall to the company's bottom line?
This old but still completely relevant infographic from The Wall Street Journal will give you a clear sense of what Google might know about you. There's no question that one could argue that any use of Google's free services is akin to making a deal with the devil: The product might be great -- life-changing, even -- but you are bolstering the power of one of the world's most imposing multinational corporations. And yes, you're bolstering it with your personal information.
It also shouldn't escape your notice that Google's kind of stepped in it with Photos before. Shortly after the app launched, it became clear that it continued to upload photos from Android devices even after it was uninstalled because of a quirk in how permissions are handled on those smartphones. The problem was easy enough for users to fix, but the flub didn't instill confidence.
The question, then, is whether the good outweighs the bad. Only you can make that decision. To learn more about what Google knows about you and how to tweak your settings, visit google.com/dashboard.
Damon Beres covers consumer technology, video games and the many ways humans interact with their devices. He is based in New York. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter: @dlberes.