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There has been good news for the world’s largest search engine company. It turns out that Google searches do not favour Google products, or at least that was the finding of The Federal Trade Commission on January 3.  It means the company has avoided suffering a massive fine, or perhaps it would be more accurate to say it has avoided that fate for the time being. Who knows what the EU and the future will have to say? But I have been googling some more information about the company, and I am not sure whether you and I should be brimming over with excitement or scared witless.

These days when I type the word ‘Telegraph’ into Google, I am directed straight to the finance page. I have recently changed browsers, and in my previous browser’s favourites I had the ‘Telegraph’, along with a hundred or so other publications.  I find that with Google’s own browser, Chrome, the process of search is so fast, I don’t need to bother with favourites – at least I don’t need to for the sites I visit regularly.

And yet part of me is unhappy about this. How dare Google decide what’s best for me, and send me directly to the finance page. And in the process, by the way, I miss all the headlines related to non-financial matters.

Still maybe that’s being a bit ungrateful. After all, Google is beginning to know what interests me, and is beginning to start to focus my searches on specific topics. It is no accident.

When he was CEO of Google, Eric Schmidt once said that in a few years’ time: “It will be very hard for people to consume or watch something that has not in some sense been tailored for them.”

Well I guess that in the future my computer will know my precise shape, and when I buy a suit, thanks perhaps to 3D printing technology, it may be made specifically to my dimensions. That may be a good thing. But what about what I do with my brain? Do I want someone to second guess my preferences, and feed me TV, books, magazine articles and news it thinks I am already interested in. Wouldn’t that make me rather dull?

It might also make me rather prejudiced. So if immigration is my thing, and I believe it is the cause of all the UK’s ills, I may be fed a stream of information supporting that view. Or If I think the UK needs to pull out of the EU, all news and analysis I get will confirm that view. It will make me even more convinced I am right. Maybe those views expressed above are right, but don’t you think objectivity is important? Okay, with the exception of a newspaper coloured pink, and a TV channel known as Auntie, the UK media are not exactly paragons of objectivity. But supposing the gatekeepers of our knowledge were computer algorithms, anticipating in advance what information we need?

I have written here before about confirmation bias, when we only consider evidence that supports our view and ignore evidence that contradicts it. We are all prone to confirmation bias. But it is the stuff that group-think, bubbles and wars are made of.

Would search engines that anticipate our demands not generate such bias? Let me come clean. This is not my idea. Eli Pariser wrote a book called ‘The Filter Bubble’, making that precise point.

This is an article about Google, but let me digress for a moment, into the Amazon domain, because a similar argument applies. I am sure it is the same for you, but Amazon has started feeding me information about books it thinks I will like. Carry on this way and the only non-fiction I will ever read will be about economics. As for entertainment, I will only read science fiction. Some might say economics is fiction, of course, but all I can say is thank goodness for my wife, who tries to get me to read books from other genres, and my local Waterstones, which I guess tries to do the same thing. (Maybe book shops, for the social good they do, should be granted government subsidies.)

Yet I read at the end of last year, in ‘Wired’ magazine, how the future of search is one that anticipates what we want to search for.

See this piece on ‘CNNMoney’: The future according to Google’s Larry Page  Here is the intro to give you a flavour of the article: “Google CEO Larry Page envisions a future in which computers plan your vacations, drive your cars, and anticipate your whims. Audacious? Maybe. But Page’s dreams have a way of coming true.”

Then there is a thing called singularity. Imagine computers keep doubling in speed at a rate consummate with Moore’s Law, until eventually they are as powerful as the human brain, and then eighteen months later twice as powerful. So if computers that are twice as fast as the human brain design computers, is it not possible that the Moore’s Law will accelerate, so that computers double in speed every nine months. Follow that logic through. Do the maths. Within a couple of years of that, computers will have infinite processing power. That is what’s called singularity. Okay, it won’t happen, for the simple reason that there are physical limits to how fast a computer can run. Nonetheless, I am sure you get the point, Moore’s Law means computers are changing at a rate that is extraordinary, with unpredictable consequences.  And this is happening NOW. Some kind of scaled down singularity may be less than two decades way.

The man most closely associated with the idea of singularity is Ray Kurzweil. This morning he was quoted as saying: “Moore’s Law will run out of steam this century and will be replaced by new paradigms as exponential technologies grow at the speed of light in fields like AI, nanotech, robotics and computational neuroscience.” If you are a regular reader here, this should be familiar stuff.  We are set to see some very profound changes indeed. So why is Mr Kurzweil in the news? Well the notoriously famous free thinker, with his radical ideas, has been hired by Google.

This next sentence is taken from an article in tech crunch: “Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin have long been fascinated by ‘the singularity’ — the theoretical moment in time in which artificial intelligence surpasses the human brain.” See: Imagining The Future: Ray Kurzweil Has “Unlimited Resources” For AI, Language Research At Google 

Maybe we should be grateful. If these kinds of technologies are inevitable, maybe it is a good thing that the company at the cutting edge has the motto ‘don’t be evil’, and has hired a man who seems to understand the inherent dangers better than anyone else in the world.

Let me finish today’s piece with this article from the ‘FT’.  See: Cerebral circuitry   The article argues that technology is changing the way our brain is wired, making us less empathetic, perhaps increasing the occurrence of Asperger’s Syndrome. And I quote: “Knowing that the name of an actor or piece of second world war trivia can be pulled up in seconds by Googling it, our ability to recall actual facts is diminished. In a series of four experiments, published in the journal ‘Science’ in 2011, researchers found that people have come to rely on the internet as an external memory. We are less good at remembering information, but we have become better at knowing where and how to find it. We have outsourced our memory to the internet.”

The world is changing and Google is at the forefront, more so even than Apple. As an investor you need to be aware of this, and understand why companies such as Google have such fantastic financial potential.

As a human being, you should be more than a little scared.

These views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employeeshese views and comments are those of the author alone and do not necessarily reflect the view of The Share Centre, its officers and employees


Showing 1 comment

  1. Similar thoughts occured to me for different reasons when I read this mornings news.
    The story about Twitter going public coincided with news that Transocean have at last accepted some responsibility for that othe massive bubble, which allowed to much gas out of another formation before anyone thought to regulate it, then ignited and threatened to sink BP as well as the Deepwater Horizon.
    The battle of the Internet is being fought between the forces of Freedom and Commercial exploitation. One side can be relied on for honesty and openness, while the other can be relied on to use more dirty tricks than any military force in history. And only the addicted users can decide which side they are on.
    We are up against unlimited power’s of surveilance and search, the ability to seek out the smallest weakness and to amplify them all at will in order to control our thoughts.
    Without clear rules of engagement, unilaterally agreed as being as fair and right as the (now seemingly defunct) Geniever convention, humanity is at great risk from serious attrocities, which could go far beyond the profit motive.

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