This news story by Boone Ashworth in WIRED* makes me very glad that I’m mostly removed from the Google-sphere.
Most of us know how delightful it is to hear a computer-generated song playlist that feels entirely personal. Now, Google wants to create a similar type of bespoke audio experience—not with music, but with news.
The company is adding some new features to its existing news aggregation service called Your News Update, which gathers news clips from different outlets and plays them in one continuous audio feed. Think of it like a Feedly or Flipboard-type service for spoken stories from your preferred news publications.
I’m guessing that Boone is referring to Spotify in that first paragraph, and judging by the fact that this new service is being added to Google’s Podcasts makes me think it’s partly a shot across Spotify’s bow.
Based on Google’s wealth of user data, your particular playlist might feature stories about sports teams you follow or—assuming you’re allowing Google to track your location—news from local outlets. (Yes, it’s yet another service dependent on Google knowing as much about you as possible.) Google’s algorithms then hunt for keywords and topics in stories that are most likely to be connected to your interests.
The company has partnered with dozens of media outlets (including WIRED) to adapt and produce content for the service. Outlets that don’t participate directly can choose to add some lines of code to their stories that lets Google more easily analyze the text and have it be read by Google’s digital narrators. If a user wants more local news, they can ask for it directly via Google Assistant.
“Local is this incredibly important part of the news experience, and even more so in a news moment where you want to learn more about how the news is directly affecting you,” Gannes says. Having access to that news in one place makes it easier to call up when you need it. “Say, in a pandemic or wildfire, the local version of the news is really what hits close to home.”
Since I don’t use any Google services these days apart from the occasional visit to YouTube or Google Drive — in a Container inside Mozilla Firefox — this service isn’t going to be of much use to me, and I’m fine with that.
One thing that I don’t see mentioned anywhere in this article is how the user can correct that Google thinks they want to hear about. I’m sure that there will be a means to do that, though knowing Google you’ll have to dig to find it.
This next part is where it goes over the creepy line for me:
In the previous iteration of Your News Update, transitions between stories were handled by Google Assistant, which would announce the outlet behind each story and its date of publication in a monotone robotic voice. Now, the service comes with its own “newscaster voice,” which was developed with the goal of capturing some of the nuance and emphasis you’d hear from a sentient news anchor. Text-to-speech stories are read by one of eight new voices that switch out for each new story. (There are male and female voices, but they’re only available in English for now.) The goal is to facilitate a smooth, unbroken chain of stories from different outlets that feels like one coherent newscast.
“It’s a bunch of stories, but we don’t want it to feel like we’re just pulling stuff out of a hat,” says Hannah McBride, a conversation designer at Google. “So we have this voice that is sort of connecting it all. It introduces each topic and, in some cases, will even be really specific about what the story is about. It will guide you through the experience.”
Google says the voices will eventually be trained to reflect a variety of inflections and tones, but for now, there’s still no mistaking them for natural human speech patterns and enunciation.
Google’s latest audio efforts are surfacing nearly three years after the tech titan bought 60db, a news customization startup cofounded by former employees from Netflix and NPR. Since then, Google has hired teams of journalists and audio engineers to develop its sonic experiments.
Oh goodie, another acqui-hire-and-shutdown story straight out of ‘Our Incredible Journey’. Which, of course, blogged it with screenshots.
Okay, so apart from the icky factor — for me, anyway — of requiring data from tracking me around the Internet — I see several problems with this service.
First, as the article points out itself, is the filter bubble where Google brings you the news it thinks you want to hear.
Second, the inevitable clash that will happen when people start preferring to listen to Google rather than the radio stations that gathered and produced the news stories. The rancour towards Google from print media, and their web offshoots, has been going on for decades now and runs deep. I’d bet that the big radio conglomerates will easily match that once they decide that Google is playing them for chumps.
Thirdly, Google claimed that the news stories they’ll present you are straight, not opinionated, but I very much doubt that will remain the case for long. Either the algorithm will do that, or news radio organizations will put pressure on Google.
Finally — and most importantly — I worry that this blending of news stories will make it very difficult to spot ‘editing’ of the audio, either by Google or news organizations. Or, for that matter, ‘manufactured’ news stories targetted directly at specific users.
*I find it deeply ironic that this story is on WIRED, a site that is packed with trackers.