Get ready for Google search powered by artificial intelligence
Ethan Hays, is head of digital products for gyro New York
Google has always been an artificial intelligence (AI) company. So Google’s announcement that its RankBrain AI is being used to help understand natural language queries and rank results shouldn’t surprise anyone.
Let’s start with the fact that co-founder Larry Page was talking about it in 2002. Wired reporter Kevin Kelly asked, “Web search, for free? Where does that get you?” Page replied, “Oh, we’re really making an AI.”
For most people, the term AI tends to evoke an all-knowing computer program or robot that understands humans completely, and returns answers in a context that is immediately understandable to us. Apparently, that’s what Google has been thinking, too. At SXSW in 2013, Google’s Head of Search Amit Singhal, said, “The destiny of search is to become that ‘Star Trek’ computer and that’s what we are building.” In fact, Singhal recently demoed a Star Trek-like lapel pin that interacts via voice with Google Now.
Even if you don’t take public statements and product prototypes very seriously, you can simply look at where Google has been investing in creating IP. Here’s a count of research papers published by Google. You’ll notice that Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML) have 143 percent more published papers than areas like Information Retrieval and the Web, which is at the core of traditional approaches to search.
However, despite this massive amount of AI and ML work being done, Google has been very cautious about taking the leap.
According the experts, the hesitance is twofold: Google tends to be more comfortable with a manually crafted formula; and it is fearful of catastrophic errors, according to Peter Norvig author of “Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach.”
These two reasons have been corroborated by former Google Search Quality Engineer Edmond Lau.
It wasn’t until this past year that AI was given its chance. The fact that RankBrain is being used to help field queries takes Google and AI, which gets smarter when it’s exposed to large data sets, to a whole new level.
Still, RankBrain is only being asked to work cleanup duty on all the completely new and hard-to-understand queries that Google sees in any given day. (This is a real thing that people have queried: “what would a chair look like if your knees bent the other way.”) According to Bloomberg, RankBrain helps Google deal with the 15 percet of queries a day its systems have never seen before. This isn’t glamorous work, but it doesn’t need to be. The AI doesn’t care. What it does is learn.
The AI’s job is to understand what people are actually asking for when they enter a random or nonsensical query, and give them an appropriate result. The AI is better at “reading your mind” in these cases than Google’s main search algorithm.
Demis Hassabis, CEO of deep learning company DeepMind (acquired by Google in 2014 for $400MM), said that the only path to developing really powerful AI would be to use unstructured information, or “unsupervised learning.” He said, “You just give it data and it learns by itself what to do with it, what the structure is, what the insights are. We are only interested in that kind of AI.”
Google is in a uniquely powerful position in the AI field. They have massive data and massive computing power. Put the two together and very interesting things can happen.
RankBrain is just the tip of the AI iceberg. As we’ve seen, Google has thought of itself as an AI company from the beginning, but, they’ve been cautious in their use of AI. And we know that their ambitions are toward a much more powerful and self-directed AI. The fact that RankBrain has advanced sufficiently to be included in Google’s ranking algorithm is a big step, but it’s just the beginning.
It may seem like a big leap to get from typing queries into a search box to speaking to an omniscient Star Trek computer that understands every word we say and the context around it. But we’re much closer than you think.
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