12.23.2005At Rose's waffle party this Monday, Kyle asked me about what made Google special. I blathered for a minute about various things, but really, my eye was on the prize, and the prize was Kyle's well-crafted waffles.
But so anyway, here's a more complete answer. I was trying to say something along these lines, but I am no expert.
From CNN: The future of online search (Spark's John Batelle interview)
CNN: Google isn't the only search business, but its name is synonymous with search. How has it done this?
JB: It's certainly not the only one. There were these companies, apart from Google, that were doing the same thing essentially. But the timing wasn't right, the technology wasn't right. The moment Google broke out, there were a number of things that happened. One of them was the bubble actually blew up -- pieces were all over the ground. But the public, the audience, us, we didn't stop using the Internet. People stopped making [it] on the Internet, lot of people lost a lot of money in the stock market, but the rest of us kept using the Internet. The portals, the Yahoos, were not worried about search, they were worried about holding you on their sites. They didn't want you to find something and go over to it. They want you to stay in one place and watch their ads. It turned out that their ads had very little to do with what you might be interested in.
Google's model, which is how they broke out, was that when you put your intention into that box, it would reorganize the page around your intention. If you put the word "minivan" in there, the page would reorganize the advertisements with regards to minivans. Whether there's cars or whatever would be right next to the results about minivans that Google served up. This was a very efficient and productive way of organizing and advertising in Google, who have made $6 million in revenue this year.
The issue, for me, is the fact that Google is sensitive to our intentions. And that isn't metaphoric in any way whatsoever- it is literally sensitive to my literal intentions. Of course sometimes it makes mistakes, but so do humans. Being responsive to our intentions means that essentially it is interacting with our minds. And it does this by understanding the meanings of our words. Again, I mean this as literally as can be meant: it literally understands the literal meanings of our words. This isn't some ersatz for meaningful interaction. It is genuine machine participation in our genuinely meaningful practices.
Does that mean Google is 'intelligent'? Well, who knows what that means. And really, who cares.
CNN: What would others have to do to be the next Google?
JB: First, you have to create an innovation that makes people say, "I've got to use this, this is better than that." That is extremely hard. Search is one of the hardest computer science problems in the world, because basically we are trying to create artificial intelligence so that we can speak with our computer, they can understand us and deliver what we are looking for. That is equivalent to turning your computer into a very intelligent research librarian, which of course is the holy grail of computer science, to create artificial intelligence. So it's not easy, you know. And to make a leap beyond Google and create a better mousetrap requires computer science that hasn't been invented yet.
There is no holy grail, no ultimate project. But Google works, and its successors will work even better. There is no point in carrying around the obtuse and clunky dichotomy of natural vs artificial intelligence. Google is intelligent. This is plain as day.
Afterthought: There is, of course, another pressing issue with regards to Google: its intelligence is fundamentally geared towards advertising. This of course raises all sorts of ethical questions about the use of intelligent systems, but I leave that to the ethicists. It should perhaps not be so surprising that the intelligent system we interact with most is grounded in the most well understood way of quantifying interactions: economics.