Google Is Obsessed With Building the Star Trek Computer

Innovation, the Internet, gadgets, and more.
April 11 2013 6:26 PM

Where No Search Engine Has Gone Before

Google has a single towering obsession: It wants to build the Star Trek computer.

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It’s not just celebrities that Google is getting better at understanding. It is also amassing more and more knowledge about you. Consider the Gmail “field trial,” Google’s name for an opt-in experimental feature that the company unveiled a couple months ago. It connects the search engine to your email, so you can now search for questions about your personal data. Type in “when’s my flight?” and—because it has seen your itinerary in your inbox—Google can tell you when you need to leave for the airport.

At the same time, Google has spent years perfecting its speech recognition and natural-language systems, and (as I’ve written before) can now understand spoken queries shockingly well. If you pull out your phone and ask Google, “how tall is Tom Cruise?” a friendly voice will spit back the answer. Because it understands concepts, it can also hold a very rudimentary conversation with you. If you ask it a question about Barack Obama and then ask it a question about “his wife,” Google will sometimes—but not always—understand that you’re talking about Michelle Obama, even though you referred to her using a pronoun.

Finally, Google has been inching its way toward predicting your needs. The clearest example of this is Google Now, an app for Android phones that offers up little nuggets of useful information as you need them. Not only will Google Now remind you of an upcoming flight, it will also warn you about traffic conditions along the way, and get your boarding pass ready for the TSA agent. When I interviewed Singhal about Google’s search plans back in 2011, he told me, “I can imagine a world where I don't even need to search. I am just somewhere outside at noon, and my search engine immediately recommends to me the nearby restaurants that I'd like because they serve spicy food.” Two years later, Google is on the way to building this predictive machine.

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Still, as much progress as Google has made toward building the Star Trek computer, everyone at the firm told me it still had many problems to solve. Late last year, I participated in a study Google’s user-research lab was conducting to figure out what information people want that they can’t get from Google. The study asked me and more than 100 other participants to list our “information needs” throughout the day. We’d get a ping on our phones, and then we’d have to recall something that we’d just been looking for, and explain whether we’d found an answer, and how. This is one of Google’s main hurdles in trying to become the Star Trek computer: It doesn’t know enough. As much knowledge as Google has amassed, the depth and diversity of people’s questions far surpasses what it can do.

For instance: “Why are men jerks?” According to John Boyd, Google’s head of user experience, that was one of the questions raised in the study in which I participated. Others included, “Why does my dog behave differently around me than he does around my girlfriend?” and “Why does my tooth hurt?” If you ask Google these questions now it can give you lists of links to sites that might give you some clues (e.g., “The Truth Behind Why Men Are Assholes.”) But these questions defy easy answers—the premises may not make sense, or they may require the search company to know a lot more about you, or they may be fundamentally unanswerable. But responding to questions that are hard or verging on impossible to answer is a task that the Star Trek computer will need to master. Unusual-sounding questions aren’t unusual for Google: On any given day, about 16 percent of the questions that people ask Google are totally new—they’re queries that Google has never seen before. Thus, to become the Star Trek computer, Google will somehow have to figure out how to serve up correct answers to questions it has never come across.

Addressing these problems isn’t just a matter of scale—of Google’s machines getting faster and its data getting more capacious. “We’re going to have to come up with new ways of doing things,” says Tamar Yehoshua.

At the same time, the Google search team is very confident that it can realize its Star Trek dreams. “You already see hints of the Star Trek computer in your phone,” Singhal said. “Now we’re trying to get it to a point where it passes the ‘toothbrush test’ of you using it twice a day.” Singhal predicted that will happen in three years’ time—by then, he says, Google’s Star Trek machine will be so good that you’ll ask it a question and expect a correct answer at least twice a day. “And in five years you won’t believe you ever lived without it. You’ll look back at today’s search engine and you’ll say, ‘Is that really how we searched?’” Singhal says. He adds: “These are the best times we’ve ever had in search. I have done this for 22 years, and I've been at Google for 12 years, so I should know. This is the most exciting time—every morning I come into work more excited than ever. Strap in. It's all happening in our lifetimes.”

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

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