That's how most of us see Google. But guess what? That's how Google sees you, too.
You may or may not be a Google user. But Google is definitely using you.
How Google Harvests Your Brain Cycles
The challenge is that computers aren't as good as humans at recognizing words. Fortunately, optical character recognition (OCR) systems nowadays are at least smart enough to know what they don't know -- they can identify words that they can't read, or can't recognize with certainty.
But what should Google do with those unrecognizable mystery words?
Unemployment in Mountain View, Calif., where Google is headquartered, is above 10%. The company could easily hire hundreds of locals to sift through and identify all those hard-to-recognize words, but it would cost them a fortune. Alternatively, Google could outsource the job to China, Vietnam, the Philippines or some other country with a lower-cost workforce able to do such work on a large scale.
But why pay when you -- yes YOU -- will do the work for free?
Google outsources this menial labor to the Internet-using world. Whenever you use Facebook, Twitter, Craigslist or many other web sites, you're doing free grunt work for Google.
You know those squiggly or otherwise deliberately warped or obscured words you have to type in to "prove you're human"? They're called CAPTCHA systems, and they make the world a better place by thwarting software robots that would hack, exploit and abuse various software services if they could.
CAPTCHA, invented by Luis von Ahn at Carnegie Mellon University, is an acronym derived from "Completely Automated Public Turing test to tell Computers and Humans Apart." The reason CAPTCHA works is that the human brain is vastly superior to any computer at pattern recognition.
Less than a year ago, Google bought an interesting variant of CAPTCHA called reCAPTCHA. When you "prove you're human" at a site using reCAPTCHA, one of the words you identify for access is actually one of those mystery words Google's OCR computers can't read. (The other word is known by the system, and used for actually proving you're human.)
They're sending the same word to other users, and use the general consensus to identify the word. The results are fed back to the scanning effort, bringing word recognition very close to 100%.
Nice work! Thanks to your brain's amazing ability to recognize words, Google is making a fortune in the book scanning racket!
How Google Uses Your Home
Here's another example of how Google solved a business problem by using you as a free resource.
First, the problem. A great many companies are trying to figure out how to reliably orient a customer in space, to answer the question: Where am I? If any company can do that, a universe of contextual advertising, location-based services and all manner of mapping applications become possible. But how?
First, Google started layering publicly available satellite maps onto road maps. Then Google implemented Street View. Google's audacious plan was to send specially equipped cars to all corners of the globe to photograph every street and every home and every business.
When Google takes a picture of your house, what are they doing and why are they doing it?
But that's not all. It turns out that for at least three years, Google Street View cars have been capturing identifying data from home Wi-Fi networks. You went to the time and trouble to set up your Wi-Fi network, and Google has been capturing data it broadcasts for their own purposes. Google claims that the data capture was an accident caused by code from an earlier version of the software they use.
One possible outcome of the many lawsuits and investigations this discovery set in motion is that Google may have intended all along to capture every possible MAC address (a number that is unique to each Wi-Fi network), but capturing other data (which is both potentially private and useless to Google) may have been the accidental part.
The purpose of sucking down data from your home Wi-Fi network is the same as taking a picture of your house: Location. By associating your network's MAC address with a specific location on your street, Google can build a database that augments, or substitutes for, GPS location.
Oddly enough, Street View picture taking is considered acceptable in most countries (with Germany one vocal exception), and Wi-Fi data slurping an outrageous violation. In fact, both are doing roughly the same thing.
In the case of the photos, electromagnetic radiation in the visible spectrum (a.k.a. "light") is bouncing off your house and radiating beyond your property line to be captured by Street View cameras from the public street. With Wi-Fi, electromagnetic radiation broadcast by your networking equipment radiates out beyond your property line and is -- or was -- captured by Google sensors.
In both cases, when a Google user can match the electromagnetic patterns in the real world with the one in Google's database, Google can tell them (or advertisers) where the user is.
Way to go! All those chores you do around the house are really paying off -- for Google!
Why This Is Different
So you're doing work and Google benefits. Big deal, right? Lots of Web sites get rich from your work.
In fact, the whole Web 2.0 world is built on the actions of users. If you use Facebook, Digg, Twitter or any number of other social or Web 2.0 service, you know the value is created by the actions of users.
But in the case of the social web, you give and receive. It's an opt-in system where the use of your labor and participation is voluntarily given in exchange for the benefits of other users' participation.
But with reCAPTCHA and Street View, the people doing the work aren't necessarily Google users. Even if you have decided not to use Google -- even if you're boycotting Google -- you still may be doing work free of charge for the company.
Is this some evil plan that should be opposed? Not at all. This is the future, and Google just got there first. Ultimately, both reCAPTCHA and Street View benefit mankind in some profound way. At least that's my opinion. But if you have a different view, you'll do the work and Google will get the benefit just the same.
The bottom line is that you might as well be a Google user -- because Google is using you, too.