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Google’s I/O 2016 conference has ended. What has the company announced? Some new Apps, a new Android version, some more virtual reality? Many people seem skeptical, some even are disappointed. Is Google step by step transforming from the Nerd Kingdom we know and love to a usual business company with the usual product cycles and slowly dropping in innovativeness – the seemingly final fate of each big corporation?
Not at all! I want to argue, that Google has a deep long-term strategy which revolves around two key points: 1) Becoming digital infrastructure and 2) Using this position to develope a true A.I.
Both points are interconnected. You cannot do (2) without (1). Let me explain, why I think Google and Alphabet are just getting started – and will be the spearhead of a development that is about to revolutionize our world.
Google: The star is the software. And it is just getting started.
What differs Google and Apple the most – the two most valueable companies of our time? I would argue it is around product placement. Apple does sell things, sell a brand. You go into an Apple Store and buy an iPhone, iPad, Apple Watch (or even an iPod). Apple’s most products are something you have to consciously decide to buy. You base your decision on the quality of the products, the image of the brand and the marketing. Things like these tend not to be stable at all times, hence the mild Apple crisis with dropping iPhone sales, we experience currently.
Google follows a completely different strategy. It does not want to be a product you have to decide to buy. It wants to be system immanent, the spider in the web. You don’t think about who owns the road when you drive to the next shop. You don’t think about who owns the power grid when you turn on your computer (well, most do not). This is infrastructure. Google wants to become digital infrastructure.
Ever thought about who owns this pole, before turning on your computer?
Google wants to offer services that people will use so frequently, without evaluating if one of the competitor’s service is any better. Or services, many people won’t even realize they are using. Google does not just want to be a brand. It wants to be the hub that sells and distributes other brands, and even a hub for knowledge, as Google’s many Open Source initiatives show. Google Search and YouTube are hubs for content and ads which other companies rely on to access the market. Android and its Play Store are the hubs for millions of Apps. Google Maps and StreetView are a hub for places, ratings and increasingly becoming nothing less as a way of perception of reality. Services like Gmail, Calendar, Google Photos and soon Google Home with its new Assistant are utilities designed to be used as naturally as our tooth brush. Why does Google all do this? Just to make money? Nope.
Artificial Intelligence (A.I.)
What is A.I.? Easy. When we use the term, we often mean cutting-edge technology. The “intelligent” car that automatically turns on the light when driving through a tunnel. Or maybe the “intelligent” computer player in a game? Without a doubt, this is not real intelligence, because intelligence is by definition not bound to limits and functions a programmer sets, but instead has the ability to learn from its environment and from itself – to become more than it was before.
A true A.I. builds upon neuronal networks. The same kind of networks our human brain is built of, with patterns and connections forming freely all the time. A true intelligence learns from the interactions with its environment – and thus is able to predict further interactions.
A real world example is the human socialization process. When we are born, we know nothing (much like John Snow), not who we are, who the others are, how to communicate with them appropriately and how their response will be. So in the process of growing up, we try ourselves out and by the feedback we get from our environment, we evolve and grow. Our random actions (output) leads to reactions (input) from the environment – be it positive or negative feedback – which leads to a learning process, and next time a further refined output.
Simple learning process: An intelligent individual is learning and refining its action through interaction with its environment.
Remember – we said, a real A.I. would be modelled after the human brain, a neuronal network. So how do you create an A.I.? You need it to evolve and learn. What do you need for a learning process? Input by the environment.
Well, how do you get input? By being the world’s leader as a digital communications hub, the infrastructure for communication and knowledge – Google. Google processes billions of transactions every day. Its search engine receives queries containing all aspects of human life and knowledge – from the birth of philosophy to the latest sports results and on how to have a good marriage, and can thus learn how all things relate to all other things. The same goes for all of Google’s services – whether being it photos, videos, voice queries and other user transactions. The A.I. learns through patterns of communication.
In the latest Google I/O conference, we learned that Google now has the ability to not only detect if a photo or video (without any written description) contains a dog in it, no, it can even determine which breed. How? Through A.I. learning!
Google’s position as digital infrastructure is perfect for growing an A.I. It can learn by billions of user transactions every day, and always gets better.
If you followed the I/O conference – or read any news site in the last days, you might have heard of the latest Google innovations. But the biggest announced innovation was a quiet one, presented at the beginning of the conference by Google’s CEO Sundar Pichai: The Google Assistant, a refined version of Google Now.
The idea of Google Assistant is basically to become your personal assistant, but including nothing less than all of Google’s functions and the combined knowledge of the mentioned billion queries each day. When you look at the upper blue model, being infrastructure is rather passive. You get used by others. But Google Assistant goes beyond that: Its active function is to predict what your interests and plans are – maybe even before you really do – and to support you to the best of its abilities. Want to go to the cinema? Google Assistant knows about your children and will suggest family-friendly films fitting to your schedule in your nearby cinema. Hungry on your way home, but in a traffic jam? Google Assisstant will suggest placing a food order with your favorite meal and time it to your estimated arrival. Couldn’t go to the stadium because of work? Google Assistant will let you know how your favorite team played once you are done.
This is much more like the original green learning model we discussed above, that every child has to go through when growing up (and every human continues to do so, albeit with lesser intensity). Google Assistant acts – it suggests things of its own and will learn depending on whether you agree on suggestions or not and what your reaction is. Its ability to know you and to predict your human behavior and needs will refine each time. This is true learning artificial intelligence.
Google Assistant acts actively and learns based upon the feedback it gets. Millions times a day.
When in March 2016 Google’s AlphaGo A.I. beat the Go world champion – something that was deemed impossible due to the complexity of the game (because you can’t just calculate what is the best move like in chess because there are so many possibilites) – and even invented new strategies no human Go player ever had seen before, everyone recognized that Google had build a really good A.I. and deserved acknowledgement. But that was never the point. Go was never the point. It was a successful demonstration of neuronal network learning processes.
Now, what Google – and Alphabet as a whole – are doing, is using this small-scale tested A.I. learning technique and applying it on the wealth of information and communication the Google Universe is receiving every day. Apps like the Google Assisstant are not only an application for us to use and benefit – but also a measure for the A.I. to have better interactions with us and thus be better able to learn.
We live in the Age of Data, the Information Age. Due to digitalization, we are producing data with everything we are doing. Over 90% of all data that is stored anywhere has been produced in the last two years. But what are masses of data when it would take even millions of people all their life to read and understand them? Only a machine can understand this giant amount of data and act upon it. An intelligent machine.
Google is just getting started. With the strategy of becoming digital infrastructure – a hub for digital transactions and communication – and using this very data in letting a neuronal network-based A.I. learn, Google is the spearhead of a development that will revolutionize our world, in one way or another. While even today, the A.I. has more impact on our lives than most may realize, in just a few years, the A.I. will be a part of our daily life, like a toothbrush.
It is a quiet revolution.
So peaceful. Did anything happen?