When Google said that not sharing photographs of your friends made you “kind of a terrible person” at this year’s I/O keynote, I bristled. The idea that its new Google Photos app would automatically suggest I share pictures with specific people sounded dystopian, especially because so much of the keynote seemed geared toward getting Google’s AI systems to help maintain relationships. Want to answer an email without even thinking about it? Inbox’s suggested responses are rolling out all over Gmail. Has a special moment with somebody slipped your mind? Google might organize photos from it into a book and suggest you have it printed.
Google is far from the first company to do this; Facebook suggests pictures to share and reminds you of friends’ birthdays all the time, for example. It’s easy to describe these features as creepy false intimacy, or say that they’re making us socially lazy, relieving us of the burden of paying attention to people. But the more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve decided that I’m all right with an AI helping manage my connections with other people — because otherwise, a lot of those connections wouldn’t exist at all.
I don’t know if I’m a terrible person per se, but I may be the world’s worst relative. I have an extended network of aunts, uncles, cousins, and family friends that I would probably like but don’t know very well, and almost never see face-to-face. They’re the kind of relationships that some people I know maintain with family newsletters, emailed photos, and holiday cards. But I have never figured out how to handle any of these things.