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Dyson on Google, AI, Print, Biology, and 12th Century Cathedrals

By - October 28, 2005

Sistine Chapel

Thank God it’s Friday, because this is some real joints-after-midnight material. BB has the first post on it, and the full essay is here. Sit back, twirl your favorite beverage in your favorite glass, and read this one.

From BB’s post:

“Historian among futurists” George Dyson recently visited the headquarters of Google, and wrote:

Despite the whimsical furniture and other toys, I felt I was entering a 14th-century cathedral — not in the 14th century but in the 12th century, while it was being built. Everyone was busy carving one stone here and another stone there, with some invisible architect getting everything to fit. The mood was playful, yet there was a palpable reverence in the air. “We are not scanning all those books to be read by people,” explained one of my hosts after my talk. “We are scanning them to be read by an AI.”

From the essay’s introduction by John Brockman:

Whether we’re talking about John Cage’s idea of “the mind we all share” or H.G. Well’s “World Brain”, Google has its act together and are at the precipice of astonishing changes in human communication…and ultimately, in our sense of who or what we are. And like nearly all science-driven, technological developments, governments can only play catch-up as no one is going to get to vote for Google’s changes, and the current laws, written in a pre-digital age, don’t address the new situation.

From the essay itself:

Google is building a new, content-addressable layer overlying the von Neumann matrix underneath. The details are mysterious but the principle is simple: it’s a map. And, as Dutch (and other) merchants learned in the sixteenth century, great wealth can be amassed by Keepers of the Map.

We call this a “search engine” — a content-addressable layer that makes it easier for us to find things, share ideas, and retrace our steps. That’s a big leap forward, but it isn’t a universe-shifting revolution equivalent to von Neumann’s breaking the distinction between numbers that mean things and numbers that do things in 1945.

However, once the digital universe is thoroughly mapped, and initialized by us searching for meaningful things and following meaningful paths, it will inevitably be colonized by codes that will start doing things with the results. Once a system of template-based-addressing is in place, the door is opened to code that can interact directly with other code, free at last from a rigid bureaucracy requiring that every bit be assigned an exact address. You can (and a few people already are) write instructions that say “Do THIS with THAT” — without having to specify exactly Where or When. This revolution will start with simple, basic coded objects, on the level of nucleotides heading out on their own and bringing amino acids back to a collective nest. It is 1945 all over again.

And it is back to Turing, who in his 1948 report on intelligent machinery to the National Physical Laboratory advised that “intellectual activity consists mainly of various kinds of search.”

… Google is Turing’s cathedral, awaiting its soul. We hope. In the words of an unusually perceptive friend: “When I was there, just before the IPO, I thought the coziness to be almost overwhelming. Happy Golden Retrievers running in slow motion through water sprinklers on the lawn. People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?”

Wow. I have to say, my musings on AI, immortality, and why search matters so much, which felt a bit out there last year when I was pondering alone in front of a keyboard, have certainly found a far more eloquent friend.

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6 thoughts on “Dyson on Google, AI, Print, Biology, and 12th Century Cathedrals

  1. Ashawn says:

    You Google-ites really can’t help yourselves can you? It’s a great site. It searches well. People still use a ton of other internet sites. If they put Sergey and Larry on the cover or Tiger Beat: Search Edition, my guess is you’d buy 20 copies to plaster all over your wall. The sycophantic fawning over Google on this site (and a dozen other blogs) is absurd.

    I am reading your book right now. I think it’s awesome. You really capture the essence of the industry. But let’s pull back on the “Google as Savior” rhetoric for a bit, eh?

  2. Savior? Did you not read what I pulled out in the last graf?

    “People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?”

  3. googler says:

    “People waving and smiling, toys everywhere. I immediately suspected that unimaginable evil was happening somewhere in the dark corners. If the devil would come to earth, what place would be better to hide?”

    I think he already found a nice little home and country spot in Bushie’s office and Rummie’s stand-up desk.

  4. googler says:

    I take that back. Maybe he’s in Jagger.

  5. Ashawn says:

    John-
    I stand corrected. Was over-hasty in my condemnation. A little “Google fatigue” setting in.

    Googler-
    Right on.

  6. “intellectual activity consists mainly of various kinds of search.”

    Yeah, well, so does sexual activity. But what he was talking about here was search within a solution space, which is typically much more complicated than a bunch of computers full of web pages. “It’s a search problem” has to be the most common conclusion in all of AI, and hardly a positive one.

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