Google Engineer Opines about the Advancement of Search

June 22, 2012

Google has been putting out a lot of PR about search. Is the company worried it is losing its edge? The latest example comes from BBC News in “The Future of Google Search: Thinking Outside the Box.” Like most recent Google-centered articles, this one discusses ways in which the engine is attempting to “become more intelligent.” Maybe they should team up with Watson.

BBC Tech reporter Leo Kelion spoke to Google’s search chief Amit Singhal, and the write up includes a video snippet. I was happy to hear Singhal insist he does believe personalized results can go too far; he maintains that “there’s a lot of value in serendipity.” It is good to know the head of Google search can see that. He also maintains that there is a big division between the company’s search team and its sales team. Google search serves the users first, he says. Could it be true?

Neither of those points directly address the improved IQ issue, though. The Knowledge Graph initiative, announced last month, is the hot topic right now. It is Google’s latest attempt to coax search into understanding real-world things and their relationships. The project got its start with the acquisition of Freebase, which had devised a unique way to represent things in memory. Though that company had categorized only a tiny number of entities by Googley standards, Singhal’s team has been expanding its knowledge and adding interconnectivity.

When asked whether this system is closer to the way humans understand things, Singhal emphasized that we still don’t completely comprehend our own brains. However, he said, this system will feel closer to the way we work. “Feel”? Now we’re getting into some murky territory. Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing. Do they have a psychologist on the team, I wonder?

On the subject of personalization, Singhal’s team is walking the line between being helpful and being invasive. He cautions us to avoid confusing personalization, which uses harvested information about the user personally, and context, which supplies results based on things like what language you’re using and where you are. I do appreciate being served names of restaurants near me when I’m hungry, for example. It doesn’t help to know there’s a great sandwich joint on the other side of the Earth, at least not in the stomach-growling moment.

Kelion brought up another much-discussed Google issue—those glasses. Ah, the glasses! Specifically, he cited that project as an example of how search may be moving away from typing into a text box toward situational results. Singhal confirmed that situational information will continue to play a growing role, most likely not confined to search functionality. He shares a charming example—he would like it if his technology could remind him to call his son when he has a free block in his schedule. It seems he would like to make an old-school secretary out of his smartphone. Bet it would make a terrible cup of coffee, though.

When asked about the future, Singhal shared this:

“What excites me tremendously these days is the connectivity and the mobility that the future world will have, which we are already seeing emerge through smartphones. I have the power of thousands of computers in my pocket – because when I type a query [into a handset] it really takes thousands of computers to answer that query. So we are sitting at this wonderful junction where various technologies are ripening: mobile technologies, networks, speech recognition, speech interfaces, wearable computing. I really feel that these things put together will give us products five years from now that will change how you interact with computers. The future will be very exciting once you have a wearable computing device. It kind of changes how you experience things.”

It only takes looking back a few years to verify the truth of that statement. All in all, this interview is an interesting perspective from a tip-top insider. A good read for anyone following future of search.

Cynthia Murrell, June 22, 2012

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