How note-taking AI from Google and Apple complete you

Silicon Valley’s tech giants intend to mainstream AI-powered note-taking and journaling. This could open up a whole new connection between the data we collect and the lives we lead.

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We all take notes. Since grade school, we’ve scribbled down the main points of what we’re learning so we can access that information later. Suddenly, the power of note-taking is about to increase 100-fold.

Major existing data-container products such as Box, Dropbox, Notion, and thousands of new tools now use generative AI to let you query your own data.

Google believes this idea is great for note-taking, too. So, the company is working on something called NotebookLM (the LM stands for language model — like a large language model without the dataset being necessarily large). NotebookLM is now a beta, and you can get on the waitlist to try it here.

(If you can’t wait to get into the beta program, you can try something more or less in the ballpark — Unriddle. This online app lets you dump all kinds of information into a web app that feels like a cloud-based word processor. Once your information is there, you can converse with it in a chatbot-like format. Unriddle costs money, but you can try it free.)

How Google's NotebookLM works

In the pre-AI era, we would go to meetings and summarize key points in our hand-written notes, which we could refer to later to remember what was said. Summarization was a human task, and the mental process helped us engage with and remember the content. NotebookLM’s key feature is that it does the summarization for you, essentially handing you the key points from more complex and wordy sets of information.

To use NotebookLM, you create a project, which might be a category of knowledge — say, trends in solar energy over the past decade. Then, the app encourages you to import up to five sources of information from your Google Docs (no doubt with other data locations supported in future versions) that can be 10,000 words long each.

Once your data is imported, you can use NotebookLM like it’s ChatGPT, chatting with it and requesting information, summaries, analyses, lists, conclusions or whatever else you’re looking for.

NotebookLM also generates something called a “source guide.” And you can click buttons to get a summary, a quiz or have the app generate “new ideas” based on your dataset.

This is an interesting shift. In the past, the cognitive chore of summarization was the main way people internalized and learned the information being presented to us. Now, we can take a quiz to learn it.

NotebookLM can also draw on its own knowledge in certain circumstances. Google is working to make sure any data it brings to the table in NotebookLM is free of error and hallucination.

It’s not clear (and it appears that Google itself hasn’t decided) exactly how its NotebookLM project will appear in the realm of actual products. It could become a discrete notebook app. Or the functionality might be baked into existing products like Google Docs or Notes. Or both.

Google has announced adjacent products, including Duet AI; it can auto-summarize meetings and create action items, putting that information into Google Docs, which can then be dropped into NotebookLM.

It can even attend meetings for you, sending you the notes. (When all meeting participants choose to not attend, the meeting is automatically cancelled.)

Apple adds AI to journaling

The other smartphone behemoth in the valley, Apple, is also adding AI to note-taking, but with a completely opposite approach.

Apple’s upcoming Journal app (expected later this month) uses AI to harvest evidence of your activities and mindset to prompt you into journaling. Apple AI will sift through your day’s locations, photos, texts, audio recordings and other evidence to estimate moments, thoughts and feelings you might want to record (and augment them with the suggested, personally captured media). The journal entries are encrypted and can be “locked,” to prevent anyone else from seeing them.

Intriguingly, Apple promised something called the “Suggestions API,” which will enable third-party apps to participate.

How AI note-taking changes our lives

AI note-taking tools abound. But when both Apple and Google commit to something, we can assume it’s going mainstream and will probably be used by a majority of the smartphone-using public very soon.

It’s become something of a cliché to say that the future of AI is a human-AI partnership, rather than AI replacing humans. AI note-taking and journaling could become where that partnership happens for most people in the workforce.

The most profitable way to think about AI in general and AI note-taking and journaling in particular is that… AI completes you. Let me explain.

Every person, by virtue of being a human being, has cognitive biases, blind spots, imperfect memory and limited mental capacity. AI can’t “fix” any of this. But it can help you think and perform better by using AI as a partner, or a sounding board. AI can compare your own thoughts and information, compare them with all the information in its dataset, and return to you the difference — the ideas you may be missing.

Mainstreaming the second brain and lifelog ideas

Note-taking apps that use generative AI function as a cross between a “second brain” and a “lifelog.”

A second brain is “an external, centralized, digital repository for the things you learn and the resources from which they come.” This idea is not just about storage, but about improving your ability to think. As with the Mother of All personal productivity solutions, David Allen's Getting Things Done, externally capturing important thoughts, action items, ideas and concepts in a trusted repository to be systematically acted upon later is a brilliant way to overcome some of our human cognitive flaws. AI turbocharges this idea by giving us a conversational interface for all that stuff, turning the repository of data into a partner to converse with, interrogate, and explore.

A lifelog (I’ve written about it before) is a longtime techno-visionary dream of capturing all the details of one's work and life digitally for total instant recall, personal growth and posterity. As our digital devices, especially phones and smartwatches, capture everything about us — nowadays down to our heart-rate — the trouble is accessing that data in an actionable way.

This is what Apple is getting at with its Journal idea: to take the boatloads of data the phone is already collecting and offering it up to you for reflection and capturing for posterity.

Both the “second brain” concept and the “lifelog” concept have been knocked around for many years, each embraced by its own minority of dedicated enthusiasts. The fatal flaw in these concepts was never the hoarding and capturing of data. The flaw was: What do you do with the data? How do you extract the insights you’re looking for?

And that’s why the imminent mainstreaming of generative AI-based note-taking and journaling is so consequential. Suddenly, we have the ultimate human interface for turning terabytes of data into nuggetized analysis, insights, ideas, concepts and more.

Just ask, and you can get a human-like answer.

When combined with external knowledge, as Google’s NotebookLM appears to do, the power is overwhelming. We’ll be able to not only get clear, complete answers to questions like: “What are the trends here?” but also questions like “What am I missing?” and “What should I do about this, given my professional goals?”

And Apple’s Journal app will use AI to nudge us to see and capture our own ideas, thoughts, and feelings.

The addition of generative AI to personal and professional note-taking and journaling looks like it could be where the rubber meets the road in the partnering with AI we’ve been talking about for the last 20 years.

AI plus personal note-taking and journaling is a powerful combination that could radically improve how we work and live.

Copyright © 2023 IDG Communications, Inc.

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