Google Uses AI to Make Search Smarter

About 10 years ago, Peter Norvig helped develop software that temporarily operated NASA’s Deep Space 1 spacecraft as it functioned without human help, more than 60 million miles from earth.Norvig’s current job as director of research at search giant Google (GOOG) keeps him focused on matters much closer to home. Norvig often shows up for work at the Mountain View (Calif.)-based company’s headquarters known as Googleplex, wearing Hawaiian shirts and spending his days creating computer systems that help people search for answers to questions that aren’t clearly defined. These can be as mundane as locating the best nearby pizza joint.”It sounds not as dangerous as computers that take over the world, but it’s something that helps with complexity and uncertainty,” Norvig, 53, says in an interview.The results of his work may be no less far-reaching than the exploration of Mars. It touches on how billions of people already use search, browse the Web, circulate e-mail, and translate documents and speech on personal computers and mobile devices.In years to come, artificial intelligence (AI) systems might remind us of our appointments, drive our cars, and connect us with friends. “Imagine a very near future when you don’t forget anything because the computer remembers,” Google Chief Executive Officer Eric Schmidt said at a Sept. 7 conference in Berlin. “You are never lost. You are never lonely.”
For Google, which spent $2.84 billion last year on research and development, artificial intelligence is a big focus. “We think of that as something that permeates everything we do,” Norvig says.”Google’s probably gotten the most number of people doing this,” says James Allen, associate director at Florida Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a nonprofit research firm affiliated with several universities. Google doesn’t disclose the number of its staff working on AI-related projects, nor does it break out AI spending.Artificial intelligence innovation could directly affect Google’s revenue, which rose to $23.7 billion last year. Take Google Instant, a new search tool launched in early September that uses AI to guess what a person is searching for as they type keywords into the search box. Instant can save a user two to five seconds per search, according to the company.
The time savings should encourage people to turn to Google more frequently, ultimately lifting its advertising revenue, Susquehanna Financial Group analyst Marianne Wolk wrote in a Sept. 9 note. Search engine advertising contributes almost 97 percent of Google’s revenue, according to Bloomberg data. “This innovation in user experience could improve Google’s market share lead and at a minimum, force competitors to play catch-up,” Wolk wrote. In August, Google completed almost 72 percent of all Web searches in the U.S., according to consulting firm Experian Hitwise. Rivals Yahoo! (YHOO) and Microsoft’s (MSFT) Bing followed with 14.3 percent and 10 percent, respectively.
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