Your brain on Google

There’s a new book out called The Google Story, subtitled “Inside the Hottest Business, Media and Technology Success of Our Time.” I haven’t read it, but I did read a review in this morning’s New York Times. The reviewer describes a passage that comes at the end of the book:

Sergey Brin, one of the search engine’s founders, is marveling, as he and his co-founder, Larry Page, are wont to do, about their product’s awesome computational powers. Having hatched a plan to download the world’s libraries and begun a research effort aimed at cataloging people’s genes, Mr. Brin hungers, with the boundless appetite of a man who has obtained great success at a tender age, for the one place Google has yet to directly penetrate – your mind. “Why not improve the brain?” he muses. “Perhaps in the future, we can attach a little version of Google that you just plug into your brain.”

Visionary? Scary? Cute? Hey, give a kid a Fabulous Money Printing Machine, and he’s bound to get a little excited.

What struck me, though, is how Brin’s words echo something that a Google engineer said to technology historian George Dyson when he recently visited the company’s headquarters: “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people. We are scanning them to be read by an AI.” I wasn’t quite sure when I first read that quote how serious the engineer was being. Now, I’m sure. Forget the read-write web; the Google Brain Plug-In promises the read-write mind.

The theme that computers can help bring human beings to a more perfect state is a common one in writings on artificial intelligence, as David Noble documents in his book The Religion of Technology. Here’s AI pioneer Earl Cox: “Technology will soon enable human beings to turn into something else altogether [and] escape the human condition … Humans may be able to transfer their minds into the new cybersystems and join the cybercivilization … We will download our minds into vessels created by our machine children and, with them, explore the universe …”

Here’s computer guru Danny Hillis explaining the underlying philosophy more explicitly:

“We’re the metabolic thing, which is the monkey that walks around, and we’re the intelligent thing, which is a set of ideas and culture. And those two things have coevolved together, because they helped each other. But they’re fundamentally different things. What’s valuable about us, what’s good about humans, is the idea thing. It’s not the animal thing … I guess I’m not overly perturbed by the prospect that there might be something better than us that might replace us … We’ve got a lot of bugs, sorts of bugs left over history back from when we were animals.”

As I described in The Amorality of Web 2.0, this ethic is alive and well today, and clearly it’s held not only by the internet’s philosopher class but by those who are actually writing the code that, more and more, guides how we live, interact and, yes, think.

Plug me in, Sergey. I’m ready to be debugged.

9 thoughts on “Your brain on Google

  1. Sriram Mahalingam

    Granted Google has stored/indexed away lots and lots of data, and further they have access to huge (but still limited, in the sense of not infinite) raw computing power. But that alone is not sufficient for systems to exhibit ‘Intelligence’, unless you define AI as a subset of ‘Intelligence’. Note Google like systems merely dish out what is stored. Can they create, reason, and apply other thought processes? I don’t think so. At least I have not seen any claims that they do.

    After decades (and billions of dollars worth) of research in AI, Learning, Cognitive Science, and other allied fields, the jury is still out as to whether AI is possible. We are beginning to see the same hype that accompanined much of AI research in the early to late 1980’s, this time led by Google.

  2. Constant Random Musings

    Google – Nothing Succeeds like Success

    However, none of these are all out there so to say unlike Google, where each beta or trial release of their product is for every one to see on the internet. Yes Google folks are good, but they are not Gods.

  3. Justin Pfister

    In your book, “Does IT Matter”, you talk about how people thought the Electrification of civilization would allow people to alleviate themselves from their pains and elevate them into something new. There is no way Google or any cyber system is going to allow us to do what Electrification was supposed to do.

    The only thing Google is helping to prove is that it’s part of the human condition to try and escape the human condition. A read of the Bhagavad-Gita will describe the eternal attempts we continue to make to try and escape ourselves.

  4. Ivan

    Honestly, this Google worshiping these days is getting a little disgusting. “12th century cathedral”, “the world’s AI”, “improve the brain”? Get real.

    It is a great company with great engineers and I would be nice to see them diversify their business models with data centers and fiber-optic networks (not sure how they are going to make money there), but hey, this hype is going ridiculous. Don’t forget that costs of switching and costs of entry in the search business are still extremely low and that Internet brands are extremely volatile.

    By the way, haven’t you learned that AI cannot be created at a higher level? It has to be set up on a lower level and let it evolve itself. All attempts so far in AI are high level. If it were so easy, God would have created man himself.

  5. Justin Pfister

    Ivan — Lovely comment. The current perspective of Google is largely childish. In all the hype, Google is taking the position as a gracious mother or father who will forever nurture and protect us. It’s going to build a us a CyberHeaven because because the heaven God is providing is too far away and requires to much pain. As the saying goes, “You can’t have your cake and eat it too”.

  6. ernest

    Computers may indeed be getting smarter more slowly than we wish but they are not getting dumber, and they are not staying the same…

    Massive processing power can supplant some of the need for “True AI”, and it is actually happening.

    I won’t predict the future of Google: I thought that after MS produced “Word 1.0” the next product in the line would be “Phrase”, then “Sentence” and so on. So I’ll just say things don’t grow exponentially forever.

    If google improved it’s search quality 50-fold would we know? The top item might still be the same. If it ain’t there then even Google can’t find it.

    Let’s say I use google to find facts

    that substantiate the opinions

    I write on political discussion

    forums. The opposition gets the

    same advantage. Do you think

    that finally truth and logic will

    persevere over emotion on both


  7. JohannaBartley

    That’s like a scary story where you have engineers working on humans day and night to make them independent of books and libraries. If I had a search engine implant in my brain it would probably be followed by a bullet. I don’t think I could resist to know it all.

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