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Google’s robot and artificial intelligence acquisitions are anything but scary

February 12, 2014

More time

Forget all the talk of machines taking over, Google’s robot and artificial Intelligence acquisitions will not lead humans down the path of the dinosaur towards extinction.

Google is in the business of providing information. Its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Google’s acquisition of DeepMind significantly augments its ability to collect and organize data to enhance its services towards its stated mission. The Google executive team knows what the big data evangelists have been claiming for some time – the chance to gather data effectively is a game changer. It also gets patents on improved image search capabilities.

I’ve written before on the 8 robotic acquisitions Google completed in 2013. I still stand firm that much of those acquisitions are connected to Google’s mapping related activities. As I wrote at the time:

Maps are clearly at the core of Google’s development strategy, from driverless cars, online shopping and search, to wearable technology. Many of the recent robot acquisitions will enhance Google’s mobile strategy and improve its delivery services, hardware capabilities and above all localization experiences. “Google’s geographic data may become its most valuable asset. Not solely because of this data alone, but because location data makes everything else Google does and knows more valuable.”

Google’s acquisition of DeepMind (which I wrote about here) has gathered a huge amount of press attention considering the relatively small amount Google paid ($500 million), compared to the recent Waze acquisition ($ 969 million), Nest acquisition ($3.2 billion) and Motorola ($12.4 billion).

Much of the media, and indeed social media hype, has expressed comments that Google now has the ability to build Skynet, the self-aware artificial intelligence system from the Terminator movies, focusing on the fact that – “the technology could be used to controversial ends,” – hence Google was required to establish an Ethics board as part of the DeepMind acquisition, which: “will devise rules for how Google can and can’t use the technology.”

The DeepMind technology is indeed somewhat impressive and closer to a level of artificial intelligence than many others. Maybe the reinforcement learning of the DeepMind technology can be compared to IBM Watson as the closest other known technology currently available – and that’s a big maybe – but with the team Google has built and its capabilities in Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence the DeepMind acquisition certainly could give it similar ‘supercomputing’ capabilities as Watson.

The likes of IBM Watson and Google’s ambitions are not something we should fear; they are developments we should embrace. According to IBM’s John Kelly and Steve Hamm, writing in their book: Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing:

“The goal isn’t to replicate human brains, though. This isn’t about replacing human thinking with machine thinking.  Rather, in the era of cognitive systems, humans and machines will collaborate to produce better results – each bringing their own superior skills to the partnership.  The machines will be more rational and analytic – and, of course, possess encyclopedic memories and tremendous computational abilities. People will provide judgment, intuition, empathy, a moral compass and human creativity.”

But let me get to the point – and back to focusing on Google’s mission. Google believes organizing the world’s data will make us more productive and therefore its services will be more useful.

Through its Google Now service it wants to offer us the ability to talk with and have question-and-answer sessions with our personal assistant, or cybernetic friend; think of the Star Trek computer or ‘assistant’. Although, personally, I see it more as Jarvis (or more correctly: J.A.R.V.I.S. Just A Rather Very Intelligent System), the AI system that ‘acts’ as Tony Stark’s best friend in the Iron Man franchise.

Let’s turn to two high-ranking executives within Google for an idea of the big problem that Google could solve by using DeepMind’s technology to improve Google Now’s service. If we first listen to Astro Teller, the Captain of Moonshots at Google X (a moonshot is a long term project to solve a problem with a radical (often futuristic) solution), Astro said in a video presentation one of the biggest problems most people claim to have is that they ‘don’t have enough time’. And being able to help people have more time, or manage their time better could be ‘building the impossible.’

Now let’s not get carried away. Google will not attempt to slow down the rotation of the earth. But through its Google Now assistant service, it could work with us to enhance our own neurological limits (which lead us to forgetfulness and oversights) by providing an information-rich data system designed to support our needs.

If that sounds far fetched, consider what Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt writes in his latest book: The New Digital Age – Reshaping the future of people, nations and business:

Centralizing the many moving parts of one’s life into an easy-to-use almost intuitive system of information management and decision-making will give all interactions with technology an effortless feel. These systems will free us of many small burdens, including errands to-do list and assorted monitoring tasks – that today add stress and chip away at our mental focus throughout the day. By relying on these integrated systems, which will encompass both the professional and the personal sides of our lives, we’ll be able to use our time more effectively each day.

Suggestion engines that offer alternative terms to help a user find what she is looking for will be a particularly useful aid in efficiency by consistently stimulating our thinking process, ultimately enhancing our creativity, not preempting it. So there will be plenty of ways to procrastinate too but the point is that when you choose to be productive, you can do so with greater capacity.

Mr. Schmidt further adds:

Other advances in the pipeline in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence and voice recognition will introduce efficiency into our lives by providing more seamless forms of engagement with the technology in our daily routines.

This technology will surely save many of us time in our daily affairs.

No, Google does not have ambitions to be Skynet! Its machines are not taking over. It is working on providing an assistant to help us manage the one resource humans have failed so miserably to do for generations: manage our time better with a personal interactive assistant.

On another level, and further to technology advances that will have appealed to Google (and perhaps why Facebook was so interested), DeepMind engineers Benjamin Coppin and Mustafa Suleyman recently filed 2 patents that cover intelligent ways to improve the process of “reverse image search”: the ability to upload a picture to a search engine that allows it to find similar ones. Of course to some extent this is already possible on Google’s image search, but it sometimes returns irrelevant images. The US patent filing 2014/0019484 by the DeepMind engineers reveals a unique approach: it allows the user to input two images, then it lets the algorithm find similarities between the two and then search for those instead.

The second patent (filed by the same two engineers) enables the user to home in on a small area of two pictures to improve image search still further.

And let’s not forget Google is in the business of providing search.

Photo credit JoC

This post is part of Robotics by Invitation series “What does it mean to have giants like Google, Apple and Amazon investing in robotics?”.  Read more answers →

Colin Lewis is a behavioral economist... read more

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