Mainstream Book chronicles Google CEO’s A.I. quotes and the future of “Utility Computing”

Posted: September 8, 2008 in 2008, Exclusives
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The Big Switch“, by Nicholas Carr, gives fresh insights into the future of computing and the Internet, and in the last chapter compiles many juicy Google A.I. quotes.

Carr provides a rather dystopian view of the future in terms of how the computing industry is on the verge of accelerating the distribution of wealth from the rich and the poor via the concept of computing becoming a “utility” like electricity. The idea is that it will soon be cheaper for businesses to pay a computing utility for terminal->mainframe type access for their offices etc. This will cut out the need for businesses to need IT departments and technicians. You simply plug the office-to-go terminal into the wall and its ready to go via high speed Internet.

While I haven’t read every page in it so far, I’ve seen enough to realize the books deep insightfulness, as well as Carr’s compelling “utility” argument. In the last chapter, “iGod”, he presents many quotes from Google founders/CEO’s on the topic of AI.

First I’ll focus on the Google stuff and the books crucial shortcomings, and then there are many citations of Carr’s interviews and book reviews to better explain the books other crucial material.

My only gripe is Carr didn’t mention anything about the whole DARPA+NASA+Google partnership; nothing about DOD .mil/.gov projects. In fact, it doesn’t even have DARPA listed in the index (ARPA is there). But for everything else that was said, the book probably wouldn’t have been published if he went anywhere beyond what he did especially anywhere near the sort of .mil stuff I usually carry-on about.

Carr did miss possibly the oldest yet most shocking Google AI quote:

What would a perfect search engine look like? we asked. “It would be the mind of God.”

And Brin talking about NASA + Google:

But he did provide enough Google quotes to leave little doubt about whether they mean cognitive self-aware AI, or merely ‘software performing tricks that makes it seem intelligent’ like most skeptics like to sooth say about our future.

Here are the Google AI quotes Carr did use, mostly in a more raw format:

BRIN: The solution isn’t to limit the information you receive. Ultimately you want to have the entire world’s knowledge connected directly to your mind.

PLAYBOY: Is that what we have to look forward to?

BRIN: Well, maybe. I hope so. At least a version of that. We probably won’t be looking up everything on a computer.

PLAYBOY: How will we use Google in the future?

BRIN: Probably in many new ways. We’re already experimenting with some. You can call a phone number and say what you want to search for, and it will be pulled up. At this stage it’s obviously just a toy, but it helps us understand how to develop future products.

PLAYBOY: Is your goal to have the entire world’s knowledge connected directly to our minds?

BRIN: To get closer to that—as close as possible.

PLAYBOY: At some point doesn’t the volume become overwhelming?

BRIN: Your mind is tremendously efficient at weighing an enormous amount of information. We want to make smarter search engines that do a lot of the work for us. The smarter we can make the search engine, the better. Where will it lead? Who knows? But it’s credible to imagine a leap as great as that from hunting through library stacks to a Google session, when we leap from today’s search engines to having the entirety of the world’s information as just one of our thoughts.

LARRY PAGE: And, actually, the ultimate search engine, which would understand, you know, exactly what you wanted when you typed in a query, and it would give you the exact right thing back, in computer science we call that artificial intelligence. That means it would be smart, and we’re a long ways from having smart computers.

SPENCER MICHELS: Sergay Brin thinks the ultimate search engine would be something like the computer named Hal in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey.

SERGEY BRIN: Hal could… had a lot of information, could piece it together, could rationalize it. Now, hopefully, it would never… it would never have a bug like Hal did where he killed the occupants of the space ship. But that’s what we’re striving for, and I think we’ve made it a part of the way there.

In five years, Google will have built “the product I’ve always wanted to build–we call it ‘serendipity,'” he said, adding that it will “tell me what I should be typing.”

Also coming in the future: simultaneous translation in the major languages and the ability to take a picture on a mobile phone and use OCR (optical character recognition) to find out what it’s a picture of, he added.

“We have literally just begun on the potential of this unification,” he said.

Brin told Levy in Newsweek just before that period that he and Page were content to keep tinkering with their research-paper idea. “I think we’re pretty far along compared to 10 years ago,” he said. “At the same time, where can you go? Certainly if you had all the world’s information directly attached to your brain, or an artificial brain that was smarter than your brain, you’d be better off. Between that and today, there’s plenty of space to cover.”

“We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” explained one of my hosts after my talk. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI.”

Slide Images Source

Every time I talk about Google’s future with Larry Page, he argues that it will become an artificial intelligence.

The answer – artificial intelligence – with search engines so powerful they would understand “everything in the world”.

Page 212:

During a question-and-answer session after a presentation at his alma matter, Stanford University, in May 2002, Page said that Google would fulfill its mission only when its search engine was “AI-complete”. “You guys know what that means? That’s artificial intelligence”.

Page 214:

…in February 2007, (Larry Page) told a group of scientists that Google has a team of employess who are “really trying to build an artificial intelligence and do it on a large scale.” The fulfillment of their goal, he said, in “not as far off as people think.”


“Everytime we write a link, or even click on one, we are feeding our intelligence into Google’s system. We are making the machine a little smarter – and Brin, Page, and all of Google’s shareholders a little richer.” p.219

“Brin and Page have programmed their machine to gather the crumbs of intelligence wthat we leave behind on the web as we go about our everyday business.” p.220

“The transfer of our intelligence into the machine will happen, in other words, whether or not we allow chips or sockets to be embedded in our skulls.” p.220



Forbes interview with total focus on Google’s stake in Carr’s arguments. Here are the AGI portions…

Looking further ahead at Google’s intentions, you write in The Big Switch that Google’s ultimate plan is to create artificial intelligence. How does this follow from what the company’s doing today?

It’s pretty clear from what [Google co-founders] Larry Page and Sergey Brin have said in interviews that Google sees search as essentially a basic form of artificial intelligence. A year ago, Google executives said the company had achieved just 5% of its complete vision of search. That means, in order to provide the best possible results, Google’s search engine will eventually have to know what people are thinking, how to interpret language, even the way users’ brains operate.

Google has lots of experts in artificial intelligence working on these problems, largely from an academic perspective. But from a business perspective, artificial intelligence’s effects on search results or advertising would mean huge amounts of money.

You’ve also suggested that Google wants to physically integrate search with the human brain.

This may sound like science fiction, but if you take Google’s founders at their word, this is one of their ultimate goals. The idea is that you no longer have to sit down at a keyboard to locate information. It becomes automatic, a sort of machine-mind meld. Larry Page has discussed a scenario where you merely think of a question, and Google whispers the answer into your ear through your cellphone.

What would an ultra-intelligent Google of the future look like?

I think it’s pretty clear that Google believes that there will eventually be an intelligence greater than what we think of today as human intelligence. Whether that comes out of all the world’s computers networked together, or whether it comes from computers integrated with our brains, I don’t know, and I’m not sure that Google knows. But the top executives at Google say that the company’s goal is to pioneer that new form of intelligence. And the more closely that they can replicate or even expand how peoples’ mind works, the more money they make.

You don’t seem very optimistic about a future where Google is smarter than humans.

I think if Google’s users were aware of that intention, they might be less enthusiastic about the prospect than the mathematicians and computer scientists at Google seem to be. A lot of people are worried that a superior intelligence would mean for human beings.

I’m not talking about Google robots walking around and pushing humans into lines. But Google seems intent on creating a machine that’s able to do a lot of our thinking for us. When we begin to rely on a machine for memory and decision making, you have to wonder what happens to our free will.

Carr: It’s no coincidence that Google CEO Eric Schmidt cut his teeth there. Google is fulfilling the destiny that Sun sketched out.

Wired: But a single global system?

Carr: I used to think we’d end up with something dynamic and heterogeneous — many companies loosely joined. But we’re already seeing a great deal of consolidation by companies like Google and Microsoft. We’ll probably see some kind of oligopoly, with standards that allow the movement of data among the utilities similar to the way current moves through the electric grid.

Wired: What happened to the Web undermining institutions and empowering individuals?

Carr: Computers are technologies of liberation, but they’re also technologies of control. It’s great that everyone is empowered to write blogs, upload videos to YouTube, and promote themselves on Facebook. But as systems become more centralized — as personal data becomes more exposed and data-mining software grows in sophistication — the interests of control will gain the upper hand. If you’re looking to monitor and manipulate people, you couldn’t design a better machine.

Wired: So it’s Google über alles?

Carr: Yeah. Welcome to Google Earth. A bunch of bright computer scientists and AI experts in Silicon Valley are not only rewiring our computers — they’re dictating the future terms of our culture. It’s terrifying.

Wired: Back to the future — HAL lives!

Carr: The scariest thing about Stanley Kubrick’s vision wasn’t that computers started to act like people but that people had started to act like computers. We’re beginning to process information as if we’re nodes; it’s all about the speed of locating and reading data. We’re transferring our intelligence into the machine, and the machine is transferring its way of thinking into us.

He cites the inventor of the World Wide Web, Tim Berners-Lee, who predicted that the Web would bring “the workings of society closer to the workings of our minds.” In a similar vein, author Kevin Kelly wrote that the “gargantuan” computer provided “a new mind for an old species.” In the end, “We will live inside this thing.”

In a sense, Carr agrees. But he’s hardly sanguine about the results. He sees mankind increasingly laboring for this machine, continually feeding it with data about our every keystroke, e-mail, purchase, or movement. And in time this global computer will get smarter, learning more and more about the patterns of humanity and the world. Carr calls this process “the transfer of our intelligence into the machine,” something he finds troubling.

Indeed, Carr worries that individuals could eventally become just neurons in this global brain or, reverting to his 19th century analogy, “cogs in an intellectual machine whose workings and ends are beyond us.” Scary? No doubt. But as we prepare for the World Wide Computer, it’s not a bad idea to consider its dark side.

Carr quotes former Wired editor and perennial hive-mind enthusiast Kevin Kelly, who proclaims: “The more we teach this megacomputer, the more it will assume responsibility for our knowing. It will become our memory. Then it will become our identity. In 2015 many people, when divorced from the Machine, won’t feel like themselves – as if they’d had a lobotomy.”

Or, as a zealot of another stripe put it: “[As] machines become more and more intelligent, people will let machines make more of their decisions for them, simply because machine-made decisions will bring better results than man-made ones. Eventually a stage may be reached at which the decisions necessary to keep the system running will be so complex that human beings will be incapable of making them intelligently. At that stage the machines will be in effective control. People won’t be able to just turn the machines off, because they will be so dependent on them that turning them off would amount to suicide.”

That quote, Carr points out, comes from Ted Kaczynski’s Unabomber Manifesto. “What was for Kaczynski a paranoia-making nightmare is for Kelly a vision of utopia,” he writes – and it’s a fact that should give us all pause as we rush headlong into the connected future.

We take so much of this network effect for granted that we don’t really think about it anymore. When we use a toaster, we don’t speak of “going onto the electrical grid.” Soon, Nicholas Carr argues in “The Big Switch,” we may no longer think of ourselves as “going onto the Internet.” The Web’s services will be as ubiquitous, networked and shared as electricity now is. He predicts that we’ll get into the habit of entering a “cloud” of computing, accessing services provided by Google, Facebook, and innovators yet to come, no longer tethered to whatever software may be loaded onto our own computer.

Just as Edison’s business model failed, Mr. Carr argues, so will Bill Gates’s — i.e., Microsoft’s emphasis on licensing Windows and highly profitable applications like Office for each of the personal computers in a company. The “big switch,” Mr. Carr says, will put more and more such products and services on the Web. In “The End of IT” (2004), he argued controversially that, for most firms, investing substantially in information technology did not make sense, since IT could no longer deliver competitive advantage. Actually, just about every industry has a well-known leader that still extracts competitive advantage from its own information technology, usually from clever software rather than hardware. But it is true that companies increasingly depend on off-the-shelf applications rather than large-scale custom efforts.

Mr. Carr is anything but a triumphalist, however. He worries that the Web as a networked “utility” will have troubling effects. “Whereas industrialization in general and electrification in particular created many new office jobs even as they made factories more efficient,” Mr. Carr writes, “computerization is not creating a broad new class of jobs to take the place of those it destroys.”


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