Beyond Google and evil

Last March, on the website Edge, the playwright Richard Foreman wrote what might be taken as a draft of an elegy for humankind:

I come from a tradition of Western culture in which the ideal (my ideal) was the complex, dense and “cathedral-like” structure of the highly educated and articulate personality – a man or woman who carried inside themselves a personally constructed and unique version of the entire heritage of the West …

But today, I see within us all (myself included) the replacement of complex inner density with a new kind of self-evolving under the pressure of information overload and the technology of the “instantly available”. A new self that needs to contain less and less of an inner repertory of dense cultural inheritance – as we all become “pancake people” – spread wide and thin as we connect with that vast network of information accessed by the mere touch of a button.

Will this produce a new kind of enlightenment or “super-consciousness”? Sometimes I am seduced by those proclaiming so – and sometimes I shrink back in horror at a world that seems to have lost the thick and multi-textured density of deeply evolved personality.

George Dyson, the historian and author, wrote a fascinating response to Foreman, in which he suggested (at least this is what I think he suggested) that we are at a turning point in the history of the computer and, in turn, the world. Up to now, computers have been limited by the fact that “every bit of information has to be stored (and found) in precisely the right place.” This rigid system is completely different from the biological model of information processing, “which is based on template-based addressing, and is consequently far more robust. The instructions say ‘do X with the next copy of Y that comes around’ without specifying which copy, or where.” But today we’re seeing the biological model begin to be replicated in an electronic information system. Who’s creating this new computer? Google. Built on the self-evolving biological model, Google’s search engine, according to Dyson, represents the first step toward “true” artificial intelligence – the ‘super-consciousness’ that already has begun pounding us “into [Foreman’s] instantly-available pancakes,” turning us into “the unpredictable but statistically critical synapses” of the Google Brain.

Dyson has now expanded and extended his essay. The inspiration was a trip he recently made to Google’s headquarters, where an engineer told him, “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people. We are scanning them to be read by an AI.” After reporting this comment, Dyson quotes Alan Turing on the development of AI systems: “In attempting to construct such machines we should not be irreverently usurping His power of creating souls, any more than we are in the procreation of children. Rather we are, in either case, instruments of His will providing mansions for the souls that He creates.”

Dyson ends on an ominous, if enigmatic, note:

Google is Turing’s cathedral, awaiting its soul. We hope. In the words of an unusually perceptive friend: “When I was there, just before the IPO, I thought the coziness to be almost overwhelming. Happy Golden Retrievers running in slow motion through water sprinklers on the lawn. People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?”

For 30 years I have been wondering, what indication of its existence might we expect from a true AI? Certainly not any explicit revelation, which might spark a movement to pull the plug. Anomalous accumulation or creation of wealth might be a sign, or an unquenchable thirst for raw information, storage space, and processing cycles, or a concerted attempt to secure an uninterrupted, autonomous power supply. But the real sign, I suspect, would be a circle of cheerful, contented, intellectually and physically well-nourished people surrounding the AI. There wouldn’t be any need for True Believers, or the downloading of human brains or anything sinister like that: just a gradual, gentle, pervasive and mutually beneficial contact between us and a growing something else. This remains a non-testable hypothesis, for now. The best description comes from science fiction writer Simon Ings:

“When our machines overtook us, too complex and efficient for us to control, they did it so fast and so smoothly and so usefully, only a fool or a prophet would have dared complain.”

5 thoughts on “Beyond Google and evil

  1. Justin Pfister

    Google says, “Do no Evil”, but Evil is a temporary delusion as with all definitions of opposites. No wave exists without a crest and a trough and nothing can pursue good without pursuing evil.

    Possibly Google has fully internalized these ideas.. in that case, sometimes I feel as though nothing more can be said about Google. Let it grow and be free, like our expanding consciousness.

  2. Miklos

    A true image of a sanitized, complacent and wealthy world of happy consumers (of those who have access to technology, that is; forget the other ones). Walking around, these well-fed ones? More likely hooked to their AI-machine like a baby to its feeding bottle. A couple of years ago, I wrote a few thoughts about this likely future (but it’s in French).

  3. NoBrainer

    Great – so when all the power goes down in California, or Akamai goes bust, we will all literally lose our minds. Still, come to think of it, life without Google is hard to imagine – you only have to think back to Altavista. I kind of hoped Google would bring out GoogleBrain soon which can simply be inserted as a chip under the forearm.

  4. Andy Black

    Will Social Networks and Vertical Search combine to challenge Google?

    Publishers and advertising agencies have a very difficult challenge ahead as traditional “horizontal” media like newspapers, TV channels and magazines see their traditional demographics and advertising revenue streams fragmented by the increasing preference of consumers for online access and the huge presence of Google eroding their audiences and potential future revenues.

    Perhaps they should remember the words of Sun Tsu, who once said “When the enemy is too strong to attack directly, then attack something he holds dear. Know that in all things he cannot be superior. Somewhere there is a gap in the armour, a weakness that can be attacked instead.” Google’s major strength – the clean search box and the ease of use, commoditised ad revenues, perhaps masks its principal weakness. As media content and advertising revenues fragment to serve thousands and thousands of “vertical” online communities based on lifestyle or profession, Google may suddenly seem standardised, commoditised and lacking a sense of unique community. Is Google becoming Wal-Mart, while vertical communities may prefer Harrods?

    Whilst “horizontal” media companies are similar to supermarkets, specialist professional “vertical” publishers are very specific in serving niche communities with totally relevant content and requirements. However, the publisher’s principal operating difficulty in becoming adaptive to this asymmetric Web 2.0 opportunity is that most tend to run each of their print, exhibition and online titles/businesses as separate profit and loss items on their balance sheet. As a by-product the vast majority tend not to have a centralised IT infrastructure or the human IT skill sets to manage a large scale data centre or web spidering facility – the prerequisites needed to datamine and aggregate open source, user generated and blog content to create vertical slices of the Web that are relevant for their audiences. Publishers will also need to integrate this content into the online extensions of their print brands and thereby allowing advertisers the opportunity to target high value communities. In addition, the datamining, crawling and hosting to identify relevant open source content will also need to be a continual process due to the continual growth of user generated and open source content.

    Convera have two very large data centres, an extensive web spidering capability and a web index. Convera are now partnering with a significant number of specialist B2B publishers to create a range of vertical websites for specific professional communities. The first example of this is with UBM.

    In building the deep vertical search portals, the key is to reach into the specific professional community in a number of ways. First, you can combined the trade publisher’s knowledge and contacts in the profession with community appeals that engage the specific audience in a way that general search cannot, and also by taking special care to use the taxonomies common to the targeted profession in organizing search results so that the user feels more at home and among peers. Building a good vertical engine can be costly and time consuming, and getting a critical mass of users to de-Google their search habits into more specialized engines is potentially a tough sell. However, in tests with focus groups from different professional communities to test these vertical search properties against Google, the results are hugely encouraging.

    In building the beta test sites, the specialist publishers are providing Convera with “white lists” of data sources online and websites that would be most relevant to its readers so that the searches are restricted to reliable and trusted information. Publishers are also securing agreements with owners of key proprietary content not normally crawled by Google by leveraging some of its contacts and resources so that Convera can crawl and deliver some of their proprietary content. Another key consideration is getting the user community engaged in the process as co-developers. No matter how bad the results at Google or Yahoo may be for a given professional segment, the interface is familiar and the destination is always at hand. Getting users to think of a specialized brand as the go-to place for business information is the challenge.

    A number of publishers are actively assessing the potential of adding social networking to the mix in order to get professionals interacting with each other and adding weekly podcasts by industry experts on issues affecting the community – these additional services will create more community loyalty and also additional advertising and sponsorship opportunities.

    The publishers can also use their print titles to drive the audience to the new online areas and this will also assist the transition of their high value print ad revenues to online. Publishers also have exhibitions, seminars, events and email newsletters to assist this transition – and recent research suggests that professional communities will actively attend seminars and events to meet peers and other members of their community. The theory goes that once you get some professionals involved then the viral mechanism or behavioural “Hive Mind” also kicks in and professional workers start referring to the vertical portal as a community source. It is also allows advertisers and public relations organisations access to a clearly defined, affluent, influential and stable audience.

    Google does not allow you to have a beer with a potential business partner – it doesn’t have that sense of community. But Google is fighting back – the recent launch of Google Custom Search and acquisition of teenage social network sites indicates they are aware of their weakness – but specialist publishers see this as a Trojan Horse. Social networks for teenagers are highly transient and target a demographic that is volatile, unpredictable and has a low level of disposable income – whereas a social network alongside a vertical search service for 22,000 bio-chemists, 55,000 UK GP’s, 55,000 insurance risk assessors or 120,000 US psychiatrists is stable, affluent and attractive for advertisers.

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