Google to end serendipity (by creating it)

Google CEO Eric Schmidt in a ponderous Wall Street Journal inteview shared a vision of life beyond search for business. Call it serendipity.
Written by James Farrar, Contributor

Google CEO Eric Schmidt in a ponderous Wall Street Journal inteview shared a vision of life beyond search for business. Call it serendipity.

We're still happy to be in search, believe me. But one idea is that more and more searches are done on your behalf without you needing to type."

"I actually think most people don't want Google to answer their questions," he elaborates. "They want Google to tell them what they should be doing next."

Let's say you're walking down the street. Because of the info Google has collected about you, "we know roughly who you are, roughly what you care about, roughly who your friends are." Google also knows, to within a foot, where you are. Mr. Schmidt leaves it to a listener to imagine the possibilities: If you need milk and there's a place nearby to get milk, Google will remind you to get milk. It will tell you a store ahead has a collection of horse-racing posters, that a 19th-century murder you've been reading about took place on the next block.

Says Mr. Schmidt, a generation of powerful handheld devices is just around the corner that will be adept at surprising you with information that you didn't know you wanted to know. "The thing that makes newspapers so fundamentally fascinating—that serendipity—can be calculated now. We can actually produce it electronically," Mr. Schmidt says.

This idea of SaaS (serendipity as a service - well, I couldn't resist it could I?) is not a new vision for Schmidt and Google. Dan Farber and Elinor Mills reported this from Eric Schmidt at a Google press day back in 2006: 

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."

So only more year left for natural serenditpity in the universe, eh? But does Dan Farber's 2006 critique of Google's serendipity plans still stand in 2010:

"Curiosity will be how you establish your expertise," transitioning from "learned information" to "learning information"  and "telling me what I should be typing." Google’s "Serendipity" sounds like it needs a bit more product definition. At least you could understand Bill Gates when he described his vision for Information at your fingertips in 1994 or Apple’s Knowledge Navigator circa 1987.

Another form of serendipity entirely might end up spoiling the party according to the same Wall Street Journal article last week:

Can it all be so easy? Google's stock price has fallen nearly $150 since the beginning of the year. Financial pundits havestarted to ask skeptical questions, wondering why it doesn't givemore of its ample cash back to shareholders in the form of buybacks and dividends. Some suspect that all that temptation merely encourages Mr. Schmidt, along with founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page—the triumvirate running the company—to splurge on gimmicky ideas that never pay off. Fortune magazine recently called Google a "cash cow" and suggested more attention be paid to milking it rather than running off in search of the next big thing.

The idea of Google ending serendipity brought out the dry humour of Nick Carr:

Awesome! I've always thought that the worst thing about serendipity was its randomness.

I hope Google will also be able to tell me the best candidate to vote for in elections. I find that such a burden.

And Stowe Boyd cut through to the heart of the ethical matter:

The idea that machines will tell us what to do next is chilling, rather than liberating. Yes, we will use social tools that harness the millions of activities of our social circles and scenes, but our affiliation with others is where we will find meaning, not some functional result served up by Google or Facebook or Twitter.

I've questioned in the past why Google doesn't seem to want to play the corporate sustainability game and one reason perhaps is because the current frameworks for corporate accountability and transparency such as the Global Reporting Initiative are not yet fit for purpose when it comes to dealing with the potential impact of future technology such as Google's. Then again, governments haven't been all that responsive on the policy front either. Google faces unprecedented and complex social and ethical issues and its fortunate that it has had a half way decent social disposition but still we need better models for public discourse. Its an issue raised by Vinnie Mirchandani in a chapter in his new book, The New Polymath and a theme I will return to on these pages again soon.

Finally, a sop to the pedants -- isn't the action of writing an algorithm for serendipity itself oxymoronic?

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