Tuesday, January 8, 2013

The gamechanger gets hooked up

At bottom, this is not a technology story, but a story about the next big step in the tradeoffs we are all making between privacy and convenience.

I've blogged about the power of Google in the past, so the wheels in my head started turning when I read the news that the company had hired Ray Kurzweil, the genius futurist, engineer, inventor.

His inventions include the flatbed scanner, omni-font optical character recognition, the print-to-speech reading machine for the blind, the text-to-speech synthesizer, the first music synthesizer that could emulate a grand piano and other instruments, and the first commercially marketed large-vocabulary speech recognition system.

In summary, he's a guy who not only conceives game changing ideas, but brings them to fruition. So it's not an exaggeration to say that this is important news, not just for Google, but for everyone.

Google's CEO, Larry Page, heard that Kurzweil was planning to start a company to build an artificially intelligent computer. That got Page's attention because Google's core business is based on search, and Ray's project overlaps semantic search.

Have I lost you yet? Please stay with me just a bit longer.

Semantic search seeks to improve search accuracy by understanding searcher intent and the context.

Google’s Chairman, Eric Schmidt, explains it with this example:
“Is it a ‘hot dog’ or a ‘hotdog?’ And, if you knew something about whether the person had dogs, or whether the person was a vegetarian, you’d have a very different potential answer to that question.”
Sounds great, right? No more wading through a bunch of useless search returns. Just zoom right in on the stuff you want to know --- how to cool down Fido, or get the best franks for your barbeque party.

Here's the wrinkle. To be really effective, semantic search needs to know a lot about you. Not just whether you're a vegetarian or a pet owner, but where you live, what you own, who you know, how you spend your free time, the state of your health, what you like/dislike, and what you think about a whole range of things --- politics, values, religion, investing, sports, work, retirement, guns, abortion, and so on.

How would Google get that information?

The friendly folks at Google already know which websites you're browsing, and they can target ads at you based on your search queries, but that's just the first chapter in this unfolding story.

To make semantic search work, they need to go much deeper.
Kurzweil explains that Google has unique access to the “things you read, what you write, in your emails or blog posts, and so on, even your conversations, what you hear, what you say.”
Once they have that information, do you believe they won't sell it to advertisers, governments, insurance companies, and anyone else who can write a big cheque?

This is way past anything George Orwell envisioned in his dystopian novel, 1984.

Think about that next time you're updating your Facebook page, or your blog, or Twitter, or sending a message via your Gmail account, or chatting on Google Talk.


  1. Has no one been able to put together a programme that can block google from collecting such info? I'm so low tech about things like this, Doug.

  2. This stuff goes right over the heads of most people, who have no inkling of the long term consequences. I am not aware of any way to block Google, other than to stop using their services, cease using all social media and making online purchases, etc., which pretty much means withdrawing from 21st century life.

  3. Well, we may not have to worry about it. Watched Doc Zone the other day - topic - the active volacane in Yellowstone Park. The 21st century may withdraw from us!