Google’s top inventor says talking computers are the future

23 Dec 2009

Future computing and mobile interfaces driven by artificial intelligence, speech recognition and machine vision are consuming the time of Google’s top inventor, he told

Google’s director of research Peter Norvig, who was in Ireland last week to give the prestigious Boole Lecture at the University of Cork, is the man behind the Google Search product we know and use today, driving the core web search algorithms in the world’s biggest internet company as well as leading the team that created Google Translate.

He joined Google in 2002 as director of search quality – a pivotal time in the company’s development where it enjoyed 10-fold growth, evolving from a curious start-up to the online advertising and software giant it is today. Prior to joining Google Norvig was NASA’s top computer scientist and would have worked on the Remote Agent and Mars Exploration Rovers.

Norvig co-wrote with Stuart Russell Artificial Intelligence: A Modern Approach, a best-seller and considered the definitive book on the subject.

I asked Norvig how Google goes about invention and what fires up Google’s researchers to create and develop new technologies. “I think we are always reinventing things, which I think is good,” he says candidly. “You always try to attract the best people and you can’t attract a person whose job is to just maintain something that was built 10 years ago. The top people don’t want to do that, they want to invent their own.

“We’ve been lucky enough, the growth has been so fast that every couple of years we’ve had to throw out something and start from scratch. You have to tell someone:, for your first year work on this and next year we’ll need something 10 times bigger so why don’t you try that. And that’s a challenge.

“That’s the kind of thing people get excited about. We’ve been able to reinvent, throw out what we had before. In terms of size of the web and the number of documents we have, that’s been growing exponentially in terms of our users, it’s been growing and I guess also in terms of the speed of the response.

“When I started we created a new index of the web every month. And I thought that was a lot compared to a library card product which we had been thinking of ourselves as being like. They didn’t update and we thought we were pretty good. And then we said people started to search for news on Google and we said now we’re going to have to update every day and hour and now with tweets it’s every minute. We’re driven by the fact that we’ve got to have more users, more documents and more speed.”

I asked Norvig about the challenge of keeping a clean and simple search product at a time when it seems more information will be generated in the next year than during the entire history of mankind and when it seems that by next year 50pc of all traffic on the internet will be video and the next 1bn users of the web will be via mobile.

“We’ll do more with indexing the actual content of the video. We started out just searching the keywords of the video and now we’ve started doing speech recognition of the spoken word in the videos and over time we’ll start pulling out objects –this has a car in it that’s in a car chase. That’ll be a challenge.

“We’ve already got the Maps platform and geographic data will fit right in and I think you’re right there will be a lot more available.”

I put it to him that it seems a lot of invention that comes out of Silicon Valley seems to be informed by science fiction like Star Trek and asked him does he really think we’ll be chatting away to our computers. “Yeah, you’ll see more of that. I don’t know if English will be the right language to talk to our computers, now we use keywords and there is some advantage to that over regular English and there is some advantage to that, rather than just talking sentences.

“Sometimes keywords and sometimes more complex commands. We’re still at the point where we get impressive results but the searcher is doing most of the work; you have to figure out what you’re looking for, which of the results you’re looking at and if you have to integrate the results, you’ll have to do that all on your own.

“I think there are a few places we’re starting to go beyond that. For example the news results and these live stories, trying to synthesize more of the results in to one place. Where you do a search and instead of one result here’s 10 unrelated links. Rather we’ll say how do they go together and we’ll fit them all together and then maybe you’ll have a report where you’re interested in part of a story and we’ll show that on a map, or give it a timeline and allow interaction back and forth where the computers are helping you make sense of it and not just showing you possibilities that you have to make sense of.”

In terms of Norvig’s own work and interest in artificial intelligence, I asked him how he’s proceeding in figuring out the future shape of human-to-computer interaction and the future of advertising online.

“Thinking about the modes of interaction – speech recognition is important, computer vision is important and then we also think about how to pay for it all and we’ve done very well on small text ads associated with search but they won’t be the only type of ad we’re going to have. We’ll have richer kinds of interactions and more options and when you’re out in physical world there’s more opportunities to interact and show you things in real-time – eat in this restaurant, that product you were looking at the other day.

Products like Google’s StreetView and the onset of augmented reality give a tantalising glimpse of what’s possible in terms of machine vision and speech recognition, Norvig says. “Yep, we’re almost there right now. You have a phone with a compass in it and there’s StreetView that you can orient to the real world and it’s not a big step from there to put advertising on it.”

In recent weeks it emerged that despite the growing and growing success of its Android mobile operating system, Google is looking at producing its own-branded mobile device, the ‘Nexus One.’ I asked Norvig what technologies and interfaces the mobile devices of the future will have.

“That’s something we’re always thinking about; what’s the user interface going to be like, what’s the user experience going to be like on mobile, how is it going to fit on the small screen, do we need another input method, how is it going to hook up with speech recognition – these are all questions we’re thinking about.”

Google revealed recently that it plans to buy mobile advertising firm AdMob for US$750m. I put it to Norvig that with social networking and real-time news aggregation, the media has changed beyond recognition. Bearing in mind the AdMob acquisition, I asked him where does he see the future of advertising going?

“We’ll have to be more engaging. Media doesn’t have the same monopoly. When watching TV in the past you had to watch them, now you have the freedom to flip over ads. When reading a newspaper you were able to flip over the page. Now you have the freedom to consume your information in any way you want.

“Advertisers will have to be more engaging, even if they have an offer you are looking for, even if content is amusing or TV shows, watch the ads for that or incorporate ads into programmes.”

Google has been accused in the past, particularly by newspaper barons like Rupert Murdoch of disrupting the media industry by making it easy for users to find free content. I asked Norvig does he believe media as we know it will have a future?

“A lot of different models will be tried. I’m surprised there hasn’t been a lot more done with subscription services. It seems phone provider and TV provider are pretty good at attracting large amounts of money per month from you so people have no problem paying per month for phone service, but €1 for some content on the web, oh know I could never do that. People will spend an hour trying to figure out how to get it for free. Priorities are wrong but that’s the way it is.

“Murdoch had a very interesting editorial a couple of weeks ago where he said the newspaper industry is going to have to innovate a lot more and figure out ways to solve their own problem. He postures …”

But surely because of the dynamics of the web, the onset of GPS on mobile devices and many other ways of getting the word out from tweets to video, media as we know it could transform and thrive. He agrees with the idea that niche brands and local newspapers for example could have a great future.

“There is a lot of opportunity for local. You probably won’t need to own several hundred newspapers to have an international brand. If they concentrated more on the local we’d all be better off,” Norvig concluded.

By John Kennedy

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years