Google going where no search engine has gone before: Amit Singhal

November 5, 2014 by Penelope Macrae

Google search guru Amit Singhal, pictured, believes the search-engine of the future will be "a perfect personal assistant"—knowing what you want, when you want it. AFP Photo / Google
Google search guru Amit Singhal believes the search-engine of the future will be "a perfect personal assistant"—knowing what you want, when you want it.

Although people can travel to the moon's surface without leaving their armchairs, developments so far are just "baby steps" to "the holy grail of search", Singhal told AFP in a rare interview.

Singhal, 44, has already brought transformational change to the Internet since he took over development of Google's search engine in 2000, when the web was still relatively limited and access achingly slow.

The "Google fellow"—the title the California company bestows on its top thinkers—sees a world of "knowledge on demand" before people even know they want it, as speech recognition, language understanding, touch technology and computer advances combine.

The search engine of the future will be the "perfect giving you benefit of all technical knowledge, enhancing your thought processes", he said.

Singhal dismisses criticism by some scientists that having all the information at people's fingertips could create lazy minds, shortening attention spans and reducing capacity to remember information.

"People always worry about change," he said.

"We have to teach people to swim with the flow of technology, not swim against it," he said.

"There were worries about the Gutenberg printing press—that it would destroy the beauty of the spoken word, but we're far better off with the knowledge it's brought," he said.

"People worried TV would stop people reading books but that hasn't happened," he noted.

"The Internet has made people more productive—removing barriers to getting information," he said.

A journalist takes an online tour of the inner workings of Google's data centers on October 17, 2012 in Washington, DC

Search is at the core of Google, which fields millions of questions a day in more than 110 languages.

Singhal's vision has helped make it the most visited search engine globally, as well as one of the planet's most profitable companies.

"These are immensely exciting times" with search technology "going through an exponential period" of change, he said.

"Ultimately I believe this will give mankind healthier, happier lives, not just through wearable technology, but the sum total of information that will be within our reach to improve lives."

'Trekkie' fan

When Singhal talks about his technological inspiration and the future of search engines, he smiles and says: "Star Trek."

Singhal watched the popular science-fiction show obsessively growing up in India's Himalayan state of Uttarakhand.

The series—Singhal viewed repeats so often he knew the dialogue by heart—gave him a dream about a future where a computer like the one on the starship Enterprise could provide any information immediately.

And life has given Singhal, a graduate of the prestigious Indian Institute of Technology and Cornell University, the chance to help develop just that kind of technology.

"I imagined a future where a starship computer would be able to answer any question I might ask, instantly."

"We're closer to that dream than I ever thought possible during my working life," said Singhal, adding that he was "blessed to do something I love".

A person prepares to search the internet using the Google search engine, on May 14, 2014, in Lille

Singhal is in charge of what Google calls its "search algorithms", which decide how best to retrieve information and answer questions.

His team tests thousands of search algorithms every year, adjusting, tweaking and inventing. The key is ranking information, giving the most pertinent answer first.

The more Google keeps users happy, the better it is able to beat competition from Yahoo and other sites, and also draw lucrative advertisement to its pages.

Just as USS Enterprise Captain James Kirk never had to type a question into the spaceship's computer, asking it questions aloud instead, Singhal sees searches heading in the same way with better voice recognition.

Singhal was in New Delhi to announce launch of Google's new Hindi-language content website.

Nearly all of India's 198-million English speakers are already online and Google hopes the local-language website will add 300-million more Internet users.

Singhal said the website in Hindi, India's most widely spoken language, would make the Internet "more accessible for people like my mom" who's more comfortable in Hindi than in English.

"Knowledge is empowerment," he said.

Explore further: Google guns for 300 mn new Indian local language users (Update)

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5 / 5 (2) Nov 05, 2014
knowing what you want, when you want it.

What if I don't want it?

Google's business is to know everything about you and then sell it to third parties. Any such intelligent "agent" built by Google would first and foremost serve that purpose, like a computer virus that tries to masquerade as a useful application.

Outsourcing your very thinking to Google would give them unprecedented power of social control and total dissolution of your privacy, so the main issue is not that it would make you intellectually lazy, but that it is so very easy to abuse for social engineering and politics.

5 / 5 (1) Nov 05, 2014
I was impressed by Google's search engine early on - undeniably a cut above the rest. What has happened as the Google brand grew is not as impressive. I don't ever remember the computer from the Enterprise making the captain wait for his answer until he first watched an advertisement, throwing spam at him, or selling his preferences to other people.

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