Trusted Reviews is supported by its audience. If you purchase through links on our site, we may earn a commission. Learn more.

Google’s terrifying ‘Selfish Ledger’ video imagines a world with total data collection

A Google executive envisioned a world where total data collection from users would be used to help them make decisions and work towards goals.

In a 2016 video, circulated internally, former Google X head of design Nick Foster looks at how ‘total data collection’ could also be used to solve big global problems if the entire population were involved.

The video, obtained by The Verge, is called The Selfish Ledger. It shows smartphone users receiving constant pop-up suggestions, based on previous knowledge about their habits.

Related: Google I/O 2018

So, to use an example shown in the video, a user who expresses a desire to help the environment could see a suggestion to use an Uber Pool car while booking a ride, or buy locally-grown produce when shopping for groceries. This would help “the ledger move towards its goal,” the video below explains.

It could also be used for shopping (which is probably where Google would make money from this hypothetical Black Mirror-esque scheme).

The narrator says: “Even if the AI was missing a crucial data point it could plug the gaps in its knowledge, the ledger begins searching for a device that delivers the required data when used.

“From this list the ledger begins sorting the items most likely to appeal to the user in question. In situations where no suitable product is found, the ledger may investigate a bespoke solution. By analysing historical data it is increasingly possible to discern quantitive information such as taste and aesthetic sensibility, which could be used in the creation of a design proposal … a custom object may be created to trigger this user’s interest.”

This would “plug gaps in its knowledge and refine its model of human behavior.”

Of course, total data collection on a mass scale, which Google is already profiting enormously from, is seen as the key to understanding blights like poverty and depression, as expressed within the video.

In a statement provided to The Verge by Google X, the company acknowledged the video was unsettling by design and pledged there were no ongoing efforts to pursue this line of thought.

The company wrote: “We understand if this is disturbing — it is designed to be. This is a thought-experiment by the Design team from years ago that uses a technique known as ‘speculative design’ to explore uncomfortable ideas and concepts in order to provoke discussion and debate. It’s not related to any current or future products.”

Does this video make you fearful for the future? Or are we already too far gone? Drop us a line @TrustedReviews on Twitter?

Why trust our journalism?

Founded in 2003, Trusted Reviews exists to give our readers thorough, unbiased and independent advice on what to buy.

Today, we have millions of users a month from around the world, and assess more than 1,000 products a year.

author icon

Editorial independence

Editorial independence means being able to give an unbiased verdict about a product or company, with the avoidance of conflicts of interest. To ensure this is possible, every member of the editorial staff follows a clear code of conduct.

author icon

Professional conduct

We also expect our journalists to follow clear ethical standards in their work. Our staff members must strive for honesty and accuracy in everything they do. We follow the IPSO Editors’ code of practice to underpin these standards.