Google side-steps AI rumours

The search giant has played down speculation that there is an artificial intelligence agenda to its book digitisation project
Written by Andrew Donoghue on

Google has been quizzed about rumours that its current quest to digitise books may be about more than simply making literature available online, but the search giant is being non-committal on the subject.

At a conference on Tuesday, organised by The Economist,  Jeff Levick, Google's director of vertical markets, was questioned about comments concerning artificial intelligence made by historian George Dyson following a recent visit to the Googleplex.

During his visit Dyson claimed that one Google staff member working on book digitisation told him that some of the material was destined for a non-human audience.

"'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,'" Dyson wrote in a posting on Edge.org following a visit to celebrate the sixtieth anniversary of John von Neumann's proposal for a digital computer.

Responding to a direct question from Tom Standage, technology editor of The Economist,  Google's Levick did not outright deny that Google was developing AI technology. Instead he postulated that the Google employee's comments were probably referring to the idea of "intelligent networks" of information rather than artificial intelligence.

However Levick did admit that Google's founders believe that current search technology is still in its infancy and the future would look very different. "Larry [Page] and Sergey [Brin] would say that search is nothing like it could be right now," he said.

When questioned on whether a renaissance of the general paranoia about omnipotent and malign computers was underway now, Levick admitted that such concerns were more abundant, but insisted that Google's core philosophy of "Don't be evil" guides all its actions.

"I think that goes back to the concept that these technologies can actually be empowering and good for the world if the companies implementing them are good," he said. "Could some of these technologies be used for bad purposes? Yes. But will they by us? No."

Google has given some insights into its AI work in the past. Speaking in 2003, Google Senior Research Scientist Mehran Sahami explained that Google News was using AI techniques to handle information.

"AI applications are using the infrastructure to get people useful information in interesting ways," said Sahami, according to reports. "There is no human intervention. Google News is an example of where AI is making a huge difference. It's used several million times a day," he added.

Sahami also reportedly hinted at AI-based research in progress at Google that has yet to be deployed, such as voice-driven search and query results clustering to help users navigate. "We want to combine information retrieval, large systems, and AI to work together towards the next generation of search engines," he said.

Levick was also asked about how Google's rapid growth, and standing as the place to work in Silicon Valley, has attracted comparisons with Microsoft . "I think a lot of Microsoft analogies are made, which has a lot to do with how successful we have been so quickly" he said.

When asked what strategies Google has in place to prevent the malaise that some commentators claim is afflicting Microsoft, Levick said his company is focused on ensuring its employees stayed motivated. "The way to keep people challenged and motivated is by making them understand how core they are to the business," he said.

Google claims that much of its innovation is down to the flexibility it affords its developers. Rather than being part of a huge team focused on one project continuously, staff are allowed to devote a proportion of their time to a project of their own design. Google News was the product of a non-core project, according to Levick.

"Every engineer is able to take 20 percent of their time to work on non-core projects. Google News came out of that. We want to hire the best people and for them to work on the projects that they need to but we also want them to innovate. Most teams contain from three to five engineers. At our company if you have 20 people working on something then the project is not working," said Levick.


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