Larry Page

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Like Steve Jobs during his walkabout between stints as Apple’s visionary, Google’s Larry Page grew as a businessperson in the years he spent in the shadow of Eric Schmidt, the CEO whom investors forced him to hire as “adult supervision.” Although Page still has none of the late Apple co-founder’s charisma and communication skills, that social shortcoming might be a blessing some ways, since his vision of a future automated enough to satisfy Italo Balbo might give many pause, despite Page’s seemingly good intentions.

In 2013, he expressed his desire to partition some land to be used for potentially dangerous experiments that would otherwise be illegal. Like Burning Man with robots or flying cars or something. The Verge reported the technologist as saying:

There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation. And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world…some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.•

His vision falls in line with H.G. Wells’ definition of Utopia as a place that would separate pristine living spaces from the despoiled, industrialized areas that would be exploited to support them. 

It’s not a particularly honest or self-aware argument, however, because Google and other Silicon Valley superpowers are conducting experiments every day on the general public in regards to widespread surveillance, psychological manipulation and communications, all of which may be antithetical to stable democracies, the Internet being, what Schmidt himself termed that same year, the “largest experiment involving anarchy in history.” Indeed.

According a Statescoop article by Jake Williams, Google is moving forward with its plans to build Experiment City. Whatever explosions may occur in Page’s testropolis, they will likely be less dangerous than the eruptions the company is enabling every day in our “pristine” world.

An excerpt:

Sidewalk Labs, which Google kickstarted almost two years ago, may soon develop a “large-scale district” to serve as a living laboratory for urban innovation technologies, Dan Doctoroff, founder and CEO of the company, said at the Smart Cities NYC conference Thursday.

The company is having conversations now with city leaders across the country, Doctoroff said. While nothing is final, Sidewalk Labs could hold a competition — similar to the one held by the U.S. Department of Transportation last year — to spur excitement from leaders who want to make their cities smarter, while also providing a national model for what the cities of tomorrow look like.

“The future of cities lies in the way these urban experiences fit together and improve quality of life for everyone living, working and growing up in cities across the world,” Doctoroff said. “Yet there is not a single city today that can stand as a model — or even close — for our urban future.”

This city would be “built from the internet up,” Doctoroff said, and would test the theories and models that the company has asserted since its creation. …

While all these ideas include technology, the concept is about more than just connecting the physical space with sensors, internet and data, he said — it’s about making an impact on society.

“I’m sure many of you are thinking this is a crazy idea: building a city new — the most innovative, urban district in the world, something at scale that can actually have the catalytic impact among cities around the world,” Doctoroff said. “We don’t think it’s crazy at all. People thought it was crazy when Google decided to connect all the world’s information, people thought it was crazy to think about the concept of a self-driving car.”•

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On the face of it, there doesn’t seem to be many dumber uses for $100 million than trying to develop flying cars, which, even if doable, would end up being hybrids of bad cars and worse planes. Recent reports saying that Larry Page had spent that sum on realizing somebody else’s 20th-century sic-fi dream seemed odd.

The truth is something substantially different, according to an article by Mike Elgan of Computerworld: The Google cofounder is actually working on affordable, auto-piloting, environmentally friendly consumer aircrafts. That could potentially be far more useful, even if it’s also a vision from a different era, when there were predictions of almost every rooftop being a landing strip and screaming headlines that promised all Americans would own their own airplanes by the 1960s.

From Elgan:

Zee.Aero’s first aircraft is a strange creature. It has wings at the very back of the fuselage that curve way down at the edges, as well as two rear propellers that provide forward thrust. Two additional wings grace the very front of the plane. Here’s the strange part: Between the front and back and on either side of the fuselage are four small propellers on each side. Combined with the two at the back, the Zee.Aero plane has 10 propellers. These propellers aren’t powered from a central engine. Each propeller has its own independent electric motor and controller system.

Page reportedly wants the Zee.Aero’s plane to be “downmarket” — an affordable aircraft for ordinary people. Astonishingly, everything we know about Zee.Aero suggests that it’s making all the right decisions.

The design is brilliant. A consumer airplane for the masses absolutely requires electric power, and for two reasons. The first is safety: If one or two of the propellers fails, for whatever reason, the rest can safely continue to operate. The second reason is that if consumer airplanes are to be flying around in large quantities near or over residential areas, they have to be relatively quiet.

Zee.Aero has a handful of patents for the innovative multiple propeller system, battery technology and for the airplane itself. One patent says that in “an alternative embodiment, aircraft 100 is an unmanned vehicle that is capable of flight without a pilot or passengers” and that “embodiments without passengers have additional control systems that provide directional control inputs in place of a pilot, either through a ground link or through a predetermined flight path trajectory.

Zee.Aero’s prototypes are already flying at a nearby airport.•

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Larry Page didn’t start Google (now Alphabet) primarily to help you find the nearest car wash. It was always intended to be an AI company. So much the better that the very thing that supplied the search giant with its gazillions in ad revenue was also collecting information that could be used for the creation of machine intelligence. But even by the lofty standards of the original mission statement, Page has moved far further afield, ambitiously angling to create driverless cars, colonize space and even “cure death.” I’ll bet the under on that last one.

In a smart New York Times article, Conor Dougherty profiles the unorthodox CEO who eschews earnings calls but not robotics conferences, hoping to remake our world–and other ones. An excerpt:

Larry Page is not a typical chief executive, and in many of the most visible ways, he is not a C.E.O. at all. Corporate leaders tend to spend a good deal of time talking at investor conferences or introducing new products on auditorium stages. Mr. Page, who is 42, has not been on an earnings call since 2013, and the best way to find him at Google I/O — an annual gathering where the company unveils new products — is to ignore the main stage and follow the scrum of fans and autograph seekers who mob him in the moments he steps outside closed doors.

But just because he has faded from public view does not mean he is a recluse. He is a regular at robotics conferences and intellectual gatherings like TED. Scientists say he is a good bet to attend Google’s various academic gatherings, like Solve for X and Sci Foo Camp, where he can be found having casual conversations about technology or giving advice to entrepreneurs.

Mr. Page is hardly the first Silicon Valley chief with a case of intellectual wanderlust, but unlike most of his peers, he has invested far beyond his company’s core business and in many ways has made it a reflection of his personal fascinations.

He intends to push even further with Alphabet, a holding company that separates Google’s various cash-rich advertising businesses from the list of speculative projects like self-driving cars that capture the imagination but do not make much money. Alphabet companies and investments span disciplines from biotechnology to energy generation to space travel to artificial intelligence to urban planning.•

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In her NYRB piece on Nicholas Carr’s The Glass Cage, Sue Halpern runs through periods of the twentieth century when fears of technological unemployment were raised before receding, mentioning a 1980 Time cover story about the Labor-destabilizing force of machines. These projections seemed to have been proved false as job creation increased considerably during the Reagan Administration, but as Halpern goes on to note, that feature article may have been prescient in ways we didn’t then understand. Income inequality began to boom during the last two decades of the previous century, a worrying trajectory that’s only been exacerbated as we’ve moved deeper into the Digital Revolution. Certainly there are other causes but automation is likely among them, with the new wealth in the hands of fewer, algorithms and robots managing a good portion of the windfall-creating toil. And if you happen to be working in many of the fields likely to soon be automated (hotels, restaurants, warehouses, etc.), you might want to ask some former travel agents and record-store owners for resume tips. 

Halpern zeroes in on a Carr topic often elided by economists debating whether the next few decades will be boon or bane for the non-wealthy: the hole left in our hearts when we’re “freed” of work. Is that something common to us because we were born on the other side of the transformation, or are humans marked indelibly with the need to produce beyond tweets and likes? Maybe it’s the work, not the play, that’s the thing. From Halpern:

Here is what that future—which is to say now—looks like: banking, logistics, surgery, and medical recordkeeping are just a few of the occupations that have already been given over to machines. Manufacturing, which has long been hospitable to mechanization and automation, is becoming more so as the cost of industrial robots drops, especially in relation to the cost of human labor. According to a new study by the Boston Consulting Group, currently the expectation is that machines, which now account for 10 percent of all manufacturing tasks, are likely to perform about 25 percent of them by 2025. (To understand the economics of this transition, one need only consider the American automotive industry, where a human spot welder costs about $25 an hour and a robotic one costs $8. The robot is faster and more accurate, too.) The Boston group expects most of the growth in automation to be concentrated in transportation equipment, computer and electronic products, electrical equipment, and machinery.

Meanwhile, algorithms are writing most corporate reports, analyzing intelligence data for the NSA andCIA, reading mammograms, grading tests, and sniffing out plagiarism. Computers fly planes—Nicholas Carr points out that the average airline pilot is now at the helm of an airplane for about three minutes per flight—and they compose music and pick which pop songs should be recorded based on which chord progressions and riffs were hits in the past. Computers pursue drug development—a robot in the UK named Eve may have just found a new compound to treat malaria—and fill pharmacy vials.

Xerox uses computers—not people—to select which applicants to hire for its call centers. The retail giant Amazon “employs” 15,000 warehouse robots to pull items off the shelf and pack boxes. The self-driving car is being road-tested. A number of hotels are staffed by robotic desk clerks and cleaned by robotic chambermaids. Airports are instituting robotic valet parking. Cynthia Breazeal, the director of MIT’s personal robots group, raised $1 million in six days on the crowd-funding site Indiegogo, and then $25 million in venture capital funding, to bring Jibo, “the world’s first social robot,” to market. …

There is a certain school of thought, championed primarily by those such as Google’s Larry Page, who stand to make a lot of money from the ongoing digitization and automation of just about everything, that the elimination of jobs concurrent with a rise in productivity will lead to a leisure class freed from work. Leaving aside questions about how these lucky folks will house and feed themselves, the belief that most people would like nothing more than to be able to spend all day in their pajamas watching TV—which turns out to be what many “nonemployed” men do—sorely misconstrues the value of work, even work that might appear to an outsider to be less than fulfilling. Stated simply: work confers identity. When Dublin City University professor Michael Doherty surveyed Irish workers, including those who stocked grocery shelves and drove city buses, to find out if work continues to be “a significant locus of personal identity,” even at a time when employment itself is less secure, he concluded that “the findings of this research can be summed up in the succinct phrase: ‘work matters.’”

How much it matters may not be quantifiable, but in an essay in The New York Times, Dean Baker, the codirector of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, noted that there was

a 50 to 100 percent increase in death rates for older male workers in the years immediately following a job loss, if they previously had been consistently employed.

One reason was suggested in a study by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, the author of Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), who found, Carr reports, that “people were happier, felt more fulfilled by what they were doing, while they were at work than during their leisure hours.”

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Like Steve Jobs during his walkabout between stints as Apple’s visionary, Google’s Larry Page changed for the better in the years he spent in the shadow of Eric Schmidt, the CEO whom investors forced him to hire as “adult supervision.” Although Page still has none of the Apple co-founder’s charisma and communication skills, that social shortcoming might be a blessing some ways, since his vision of a future automated enough to satisfy Italo Balbo might give many pause, and should, despite Page’s good intentions. From Nicholas Carlson’s longform 2014 Business Insider profile of the search-giant leader’s second act:

During a keynote at a Google conference in 2013, Page said that in the long term — “you know, 50 years from now or something” — he hopes Google’s software will be able to “understand what you’re knowledgeable about, what you’re not, and how to organize the world so that the world can solve important problems.”

So, in Page’s vision, if you walk into your house and feel cold, your Google-powered wristwatch will be performing a search to understand that feeling. The search result will be for your Google-powered thermostat to turn up the heat.

Likewise, if you run out of milk and your Google-powered fridge notifies your Google-powered self-driving car to go collect some more from the Google-powered robots at the local grocery warehouse (no doubt paying with your Google wallet), it will all be a function of search.

The key to understanding the diversity of Google’s moonshots is understanding that Page’s vision of “perfect search” only works if all the products you interact with are compatible with one another.

For example, Google’s most advanced search product today, Google Now, is able to do things like alert Android users that they need to leave now if they are going to beat traffic and make a flight on time. But it can only do that because it has access to the Android users’ inboxes, Google Maps, Google Flight Search, Google Calendar, and, of course, the users’ smartphones.

So while it may seem random for Google to get into businesses as diverse as cars, thermostats, robotics, and TV production, there is an overriding objective behind it all: Page is envisioning a world where everything we touch is connected with and understood by an artificially intelligent computer that can discern patterns from our activity and learn to anticipate our needs before we even know we have them. Someday, Page has said several times, this AI will be hooked directly to our brains — perhaps through an implant.

Some of these ideas would scare people if Page were better at talking about them. He is, after all, directing billions of dollars every year toward making them a reality as quickly as possible. He’s said several times that Google should be employing 1 million engineers. With all of Google’s money, that’s actually possible.

The good news for the world is that Page’s goal of developing a pervasively connected AI that understands and provides for our every need is not about taking advantage of us.

He is, at heart, a passionate utopian — one who believes that technology has overwhelmingly made life better for humans and will only continue to do so.•

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Big-picture thinkers are important, and I’m pleased Larry Page is among them, believing from the start that Google was about AI rather than search, establishing a latter-day Bell Labs with GoogleX. But I’m happy everyone isn’t like him. The micro also matters, suffering and inequity need addressing on a granular level until the future “arrives.” Both are vital. An excerpt from Page’s TED interview from last week, which was conducted by avuncular android Charlie Rose.

Charlie Rose:

Tell me about your philosophy. You don’t just want a small arena of progress.

Larry Page:

Many of the things we just talked about use the economic concept of additionality: You’re doing something that wouldn’t happen unless you were actually doing it. The more you do things like that, the bigger impact you have. That’s about doing things that people might not think are possible. The more I think about technology, the more I realize I don’t know.

Charlie Rose:

Lots of people think about the future — but then we never see implementation.

Larry Page:

Invention is not enough. Tesla invented the electric power we use, but he struggled to get it out to people. You have to combine both things: invention and innovation focus, plus the company that can commercialize things and get them to people.

Charlie Rose:

You are one of those people who believe that corporations are agents of change, if they’re run well.

Larry Page:

I’m really dismayed. Most people think corporations are basically evil. They get a bad rap. And that’s somewhat correct, if companies are doing the same incremental things they did 20 years ago. But that’s not really what we need. Especially in tech, we need revolutionary change, not incremental change.

Charlie Rose:

You once said you might consider giving your money to Elon Musk because you had confidence he will change the future.

Larry Page:

He wants to go to Mars. That’s a worthy goal. We have a lot of employees at Google who’ve become pretty wealthy. You’re working because you want to change the world and make it better; if the company you work for is worthy of your time, why not your money as well? We just don’t think about that. I’d like for us to help out more than we are.

Charlie Rose:

What state of mind, quality of mind, has served you best? Rupert Murdoch and many others have said ‘curiosity,’ Bill Gates and Warren Buffett have said ‘focus.’ What has enabled you to think about the future and change the present?

Larry Page:

Lots of companies don’t succeed over time. What do they fundamentally do wrong? They usually miss the future. I try to focus on that: What is the future really going to be? And how do we create it? And how do we power our organization to really focus on that and really drive it at a high rate? When I was working on Android, I felt guilty. It wasn’t what we were working on, it was a start-up, and I felt guilty. That was stupid! It was the future.”•

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In a Financial Times interview conducted by Richard Waters, Larry Page discusses the Bell Labs ambitions of Google, the search giant that aims to remake itself in radically different ways. He also concurs with the current conventional wisdom that says consumer prices are about to markedly shrink and that will make up for technological unemployment. An excerpt:

Some of Google’s own big bets are in areas that he describes as being at the “fringes” – things that seem open to a technological solution but which, for some reason, have not received concerted attention. As examples, he picks self-driving cars and the diseases that afflict older people – the latter a field that his wife worked in at a lab at Stanford University. “It wasn’t a high-status thing,” he says. Through a new biotech arm called Calico, Google is now planning to plough hundreds of millions of dollars of its own into the area.

“We do benefit from the fact that once we say we’re going to do it, people believe we can do it, because we have the resources,” he says. “Google helps in that way: there aren’t many funding mechanisms like that.”

But compared with its heady early days, when every brash initiative was welcomed by an adoring public with the indulgence of a parent celebrating a child’s finger paintings, the onrush of technological change has started to stir up fear.

“I think people see the disruption but they don’t really see the positive,” says Page. “They don’t see it as a life-changing kind of thing . . . I think the problem has been people don’t feel they are participating in it.”

A perennial optimist when it comes to technology, he argues that all that will change. Rapid improvements in artificial intelligence, for instance, will make computers and robots adept at most jobs. Given the chance to give up work, nine out of 10 people “wouldn’t want to be doing what they’re doing today.”

What of people who might regret losing their work? Once jobs have been rendered obsolete by technology, there is no point wasting time hankering after them, says Page. “The idea that everyone should slavishly work so they do something inefficiently so they keep their job – that just doesn’t make any sense to me. That can’t be the right answer.”

He sees another boon in the effect that technology will have on the prices of many everyday goods and services. A massive deflation is coming: “Even if there’s going to be a disruption on people’s jobs, in the short term that’s likely to be made up by the decreasing cost of things we need, which I think is really important and not being talked about.”

New technologies will make businesses not 10 per cent, but 10 times more efficient, he says. Provided that flows through into lower prices: “I think the things you want to live a comfortable life could get much, much, much cheaper.”

Collapsing house prices could be another part of this equation. Even more than technology, he puts this down to policy changes needed to make land more readily available for construction. Rather than exceeding $1m, there’s no reason why the median home in Palo Alto, in the heart of Silicon Valley, shouldn’t cost $50,000, he says.•

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In an excellent Wired piece, Kevin Kelly predicts the near-term future of AI and reminds that search was never the principal goal of Google. He also explains that our attempt to define artificial intelligence has a parallel, tacit quest: redefining what being human means. An excerpt:

A picture of our AI future is coming into view, and it is not the HAL 9000—a discrete machine animated by a charismatic (yet potentially homicidal) humanlike consciousness—or a Singularitan rapture of superintelligence. The AI on the horizon looks more like Amazon Web Services—cheap, reliable, industrial-grade digital smartness running behind everything, and almost invisible except when it blinks off. This common utility will serve you as much IQ as you want but no more than you need. Like all utilities, AI will be supremely boring, even as it transforms the Internet, the global economy, and civilization. It will enliven inert objects, much as electricity did more than a century ago. Everything that we formerly electrified we will now cognitize. This new utilitarian AI will also augment us individually as people (deepening our memory, speeding our recognition) and collectively as a species. There is almost nothing we can think of that cannot be made new, different, or interesting by infusing it with some extra IQ. In fact, the business plans of the next 10,000 startups are easy to forecast: Take X and add AI. This is a big deal, and now it’s here.

Around 2002 I attended a small party for Google—before its IPO, when it only focused on search. I struck up a conversation with Larry Page, Google’s brilliant cofounder, who became the company’s CEO in 2011. “Larry, I still don’t get it. There are so many search companies. Web search, for free? Where does that get you?” My unimaginative blindness is solid evidence that predicting is hard, especially about the future, but in my defense this was before Google had ramped up its ad-auction scheme to generate real income, long before YouTube or any other major acquisitions. I was not the only avid user of its search site who thought it would not last long. But Page’s reply has always stuck with me: “Oh, we’re really making an AI.”

I’ve thought a lot about that conversation over the past few years as Google has bought 14 AI and robotics companies. At first glance, you might think that Google is beefing up its AI portfolio to improve its search capabilities, since search contributes 80 percent of its revenue. But I think that’s backward. Rather than use AI to make its search better, Google is using search to make its AI better.•

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Yahoo! doesn’t know what it wants to be, while Google wants to be everything. It’s clear Larry Page would like to do radical experiments on the micro scale, but he really dreams of the macro, hoping to establish a next-wave Google to tackle the world’s non-virtual problems. From Vlad Savov at The Verge:

“As if self-driving carsballoon-carried internet, or the eradication of death weren’t ambitious enough projects, Google CEO Larry Page has apparently been working behind the scenes to set up even bolder tasks for his company. The Information reports that Page started up a Google 2.0 project inside the company a year ago to look at the big challenges facing humanity and the ways Google can overcome them. Among the grand-scale plans discussed were Page’s desire to build a more efficient airport as well as a model city. To progress these ideas to fruition, the Google chief has also apparently proposed a second research and development lab, called Google Y, to focus on even longer-term programs that the current Google X, which looks to support future technology and is headed up by his close ally Sergey Brin.”

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In one passage of Vinod Khosla’s interview last week with Google guys Larry Page and Sergey Brin, the pair comment on the company’s future–your future!–when you’ll eventually have the implant. Search-engine earnings are a lot like oil money in Dubai: Eventually the generous profits dry up, so Page and Brin seek to build a diverse company unreliant on any one sector. If just intelligent machines or driverless-car software or a couple other “moonshots” pan out–robot butlers, anyone?–the Google nation-state won’t have to fret over its bottom line. What those things (robotics in particular) do to your bottom line, however, is another matter, since those complexities seem beyond the remedies of technologists or the will of politicians. An excerpt:

Vinod Khosla:

I’d love both of you to comment a little bit on where Google is. What are the couple of things that become really, really critical for Google to do in the next five to 15 years? What areas are going to be critical?

Sergey Brin: 

I think if there was a couple of areas that were critical, then that would be too vulnerable a spot to be in, in a way. There are many, many opportunities to broadly use technology to impact the world, and to have a successful business. We try to invest, at least, in the places where we see a good fit to our company. But that could be many, many bets, and only a few of them need to pay off. From my perspective – running Google X – that’s my job, is to invest in a number of opportunities, each one of which may be a big bet. But I hope– well, you have a portfolio too. But I hope, across that portfolio, some of them pay off. Some of them are connected to our existing business and some, not so much. If you look at the self-driving cars, for example, I hope that that could really transform transportation around the world, and reduce the need for individual car ownership, the need for parking, road congestion and so forth. If that was successful in its own right, we would be super happy. It’s obviously still a big bet. It’s got many technical and policy risks. But if you are willing to make a number of bets like that, you’ve got to hope that some of them will pay off.

Vinod Khosla:

Larry, any particular areas you think are critical to Google’s success the next few years? Areas you don’t want to screw up?

Larry Page: 

I think we’re pretty excited about Android obviously. I think that we have our traditional businesses obviously, search and things like that. I think one of the things people have been confused about– people are like, ‘What is Google? Why are you guys coherent?’ And it’s really interesting when you look at search. It’s really trying to understand everything in the world and make sense of it, organize it for people. We said, ‘Well, We’re doing that. A lot of queries are actually about places, so we need to understand places.’ Then we said, ‘A lot of the queries are about content we can’t find. We did books, and so on.’ So, we’ve been gradually expanding that. If you look at things like Google Now also– well, maybe you don’t want to ask a question. Maybe you want to just have it answered for you before you ask it. That would be better. Originally, the ‘I’m feeling lucky’ button, that was supposed to be– you should be able to skip the search results, and go directly to the answer. Unfortunately, it didn’t work that well. It was kind of an obtuse naming of the feature, but that was the same kind of idea. We feel like right now, computers are still pretty bad. You’re just messing around. You’re scrolling on your touchscreen phone, and trying to find stuff. You’re in a car. It’s bouncy, and you can’t– it doesn’t really work. I think the actual amount of knowledge you get out of your computer versus the amount of time you spend with it is still pretty bad. So I think our job is to solve that, and most of the things we’re doing make sense in that context.

Vinod Khosla: 

Along those lines, one of the areas I know you’ve both been very interested in is machine learning and AI, as it’s been called in the past. In the past, it’s never quite reached its potential or speculated potential. How far do you think it is as a technology, and how much of a role do you think it plays going forward?

Sergey Brin:

Look, this is our latest model, right here [gestures at Larry]. See, not perfect yet. But doing pretty well. In the machine learning realm, we have several kinds of efforts going on. There’s, for example, the brain project, which is really machine learning focused. It takes input, such as vision. In fact, we’ve been using it for the self-driving cars. It’s been helpful there. It’s been helpful for a number of Google services. And then, there’s more general intelligence, like the DeepMind acquisition that – in theory – we hope will one day be fully reasoning AI. Obviously, computer scientists have been promising that for decades and not at all delivered. So I think it would be foolish of us to make prognoses about that. But we do have lots of proof points that one can create intelligent things in the world because– all of us around. Therefore, you should presume that someday, we will be able to make machines that can reason, think and do things better than we can.”

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Google’s Larry Page, who believes you’ll eventually have a brain implant, tells Farhad Manjoo of the New York Times, somewhat defensively, one of the main obstacles of technologists who wish to quantify and mine our lives: 

Farhad Manjoo:

You’re saying the usefulness of the products will change how people feel about them?

Larry Page: 

Yeah, and we know that if we talk about things before people see them, there’s a much more negative reaction. That’s one of the things we learned. It’s really important for people to be able to experience products; otherwise you fear the worst without seeing those benefits.

I’m not trying to minimize the issues. For me, I’m so excited about the possibilities to improve things for people, my worry would be the opposite. We get so worried about these things that we don’t get the benefits. I think that’s what’s happened in health care. We’ve decided, through regulation largely, that data is so locked up that it can’t be used to benefit people very well.

Right now we don’t data-mine health care data. If we did we’d probably save 100,000 lives next year. I’m very worried that the media and governments will try to stoke the people’s fears and we’ll end up in a state where we could benefit a lot of people but we’re not able to do that. That’s the likely outcome.”


Technological positivist Marc Andreessen was Russ Roberts’ guest on a really good installment of the EconTalk podcast. The Netscape founder and venture capitalist sees the world as moving in the right direction in the macro, perhaps giving short shrift to those sinking in the short-term and mid-term turmoil that attends transformation. Notes on myriad discussion topics.

  • Google. Andreessen details how one of the most powerful companies on Earth had plenty of luck on its way to market dominance and its position as a latter-day Bell Labs. The search giant could have collapsed early on or been purchased, with Larry Page and Sergey Brin winding up as, say, Yahoo! middle managers. (“A fate worse than death,” as the host cleverly sums it up.) The guest recalls a fellow venture capital player calling the chief Google guys the “two most arrogant founders” he’d ever met.
  • Jobs lost to automation. The guest believes that with the delivery of smartphones into the hands of (eventually) seven billion people, that we’re at the tipping point of an economic boom and great job creation. He doesn’t qualify his remarks by saying that we’re in for rough times in the short run with jobs because of robotics. Andreesen also doesn’t address the possibility that we could have both an economic boom and a jobs shortfall.
  • Bitcoin. He’s over the moon for the crypto-currency company, saying it’s as revolutionary as the personal computer or the Internet. That seems like way too much hyperbole.
  • MOOCs. Andreesen points out that good universities will never be able to expand to meet a growing global population, so online courses will be essential if we’re to avoid a disastrous educational collapse.
  • Political upheavals. The one cloud the Netscape founder sees on the horizon is a barrage of political upheavals that will destabilize sections of the globe at times.
  • Journalism. Andreessen is sanguine about the future of journalism, believing that companies will adjust to post-monopolistic competition. He points out formerly profitable things about newspapers (classified ads, sports scores, movie times, etc.) that have been cannibalized by the Internet without guessing what will replace them for those faltering companies. If his argument was that nothing need replace them and these erstwhile powerful news corporations were no longer necessary since news distribution is now diffuse, I think that would probably be a stronger argument than suggesting that all but a few such companies are salvageable.•


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I admire Google for its Bell Labs-sized ambitions, but Larry Page telling us to trust his company with our private information is only slightly less ludicrous than Mark Zuckerberg lecturing the President about the NSA. It’s just a ruse to try to convince the more gullible among us that Silicon Valley isn’t Big Brother-ish. That’s a lie, of course. The government and Google and Facebook and, to a good extent, the rest of us, are all working in the same direction: to gather as much data we can to survive in the Information Age. Page and Zuckerberg want what’s inside your head; they even want to implant information there. I don’t doubt that Page has plenty of noble intentions, but a publicly traded behemoth’s largesse only goes so far. The beast must be fed.

From a WSJ report of a conversation between Page and Charlie Rose, a handsome robot who once had an epiphany on a tennis court:

In what has become a Silicon Valley ritual, Page criticized electronic surveillance by U.S. intelligence agencies, based on leaks by former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden.

‘We need to know the parameters of what the government is doing and why,’ Page said. ‘The government has done itself a disservice. I’m sad that Google is in the position of protecting you from what the government is doing.’

When it comes to individuals trying to shield themselves from private companies, however, Page said people shouldn’t be ‘throwing the baby out with the bath water.’

Page suggested sharing information with the ‘right’ companies is important for technology to advance, and that Google is among those companies. ‘We spend a lot of time thinking about these issues,’ he said. ‘The main thing we need to do is provide (users) choice” and show them what data will be used.'”

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Eventually you’ll have the implant,” promised Google’s Larry Page when asked about brain augmentation. And, sure, we could stand to be smarter, but Gogogle doesn’t just provide information–it also collects it. In that vein is this CNN story by Doug Gross about a strange, new Google patent:

“It looks like Google Glass was just the beginning. Google now appears to be aiming a few inches lower, working on a temporary electronic tattoo that would stick to the user’s throat.

Google-owned Motorola Mobility, published last week, for a system ‘that comprises an electronic skin tattoo capable of being applied to a throat region of a body.’

The patent says the tattoo would communicate with smartphones, gaming devices, tablets and wearable tech like Google Glass via a Bluetooth-style connection and would include a microphone and power source. The idea is that wearers could communicate with their devices via voice commands without having to wear an earpiece or the the Glass headset.

And how’s this for future tech? It could even be used as a lie detector.”

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In his speculative 1974 novel, Ecotopia, Ernest Callenbach imagined an America disrupted by a West Coast secession led by environmentalists. Stanford’s Balaji Srinivasan has a different dream: a techno-utopia built in the aftermath of a Silicon Valley exit. Sounds terrifying. Google’s Larry Page has actually offered a soft-core version previously, suggesting we create physical space for conducting experimentation that is beyond laws or regulation. Equally scary. From Nick Statt at Cnet:

Cupertino, Calif. — Balaji Srinivasan opened his Y Combinator startup school talk with a joke: Is the US the Microsoft of nations? The question was received warmly by the crowd of more than 1,700 and did in fact have a logical conclusion: Larry Page and Sergey Brin, co-founders of Google, were exactly what Bill Gates feared when he said in 1998 that two people in a garage working on something new was Microsoft’s biggest threat.

What ties those two seams together? The idea of techno-utopian spaces — new countries even — that could operate beyond the bureaucracy and inefficiency of government. It’s a decision that hinges on exiting the current system, as Srinivasan terms it from the realm of political science, instead of using one’s voice to reform from within, the very way Page and Brin decided to found their search giant instead of seek out ways in which the then-current tech titans could solve new problems.

Calling his radical-sounding proposal ‘Silicon Valley’s Ultimate Exit,’ Srinivasan thinks that these limitless spaces, popularly postulated by Page at this year’s Google I/O, are already being created, thanks to technology and a desire to exit. Ultimately, the Stanford lecturer and co-founder of Counsyl, a genetics startup, thinks Silicon Valley could lead the charge in exiting en masse because, eventually, ‘they are going to try and blame the economy on Silicon Valley.'”

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Well, Time‘s cover story, Can Google Solve Death?, overpromises just a little, doesn’t it? I mean, Google hasn’t even been able to solve social media. The article doesn’t provide much insight into its ostensible premise, that with the launch of Calico, a life-extension outfit, Google aims to, yes, defeat mortality, through information-rich analysis. But the piece by Harry McCracken and Lev Grossman works because of its shadow premise.

The real story, not necessarily a new one but well-stated here, is that Google is a deeply strange company–which is not necessarily a bad thing. It’s not like Microsoft, which rode its primary product (software) to great wealth, occasionally dabbling (unsuccessfully) in sectors it had already lost (Slate for online content, Bing for search, Zune for digital-music players). Facebook seems to be much more like Microsoft in its mission purity, whereas Google wants to cut a broader path.

No, the template for the search giant is the golden age of Bell Labs. Of course, Google hasn’t had nearly the success yet that AT&T’s R&D lab did. But it only has to hit in a couple of areas (e.g., driverless-car software leading a fleet of autonomous taxis) to begin to diversify itself into a seemingly endless future. Ultimately, it’s own life is the one Google is really trying to extend. 

From the article (which is paywalled):

“Most of the firm’s wildest ideas are dreamed up at Google X, which functions something like Google’s fantastical subconscious. It’s a secretive research arm headquartered a three-minute ride from the main Googleplex on one of the company’s 1,000-plus brightly colored bikes. While Page tends to the entire business as CEO, Brin now devotes much of his attention to X, which he runs in partnership with scientist and entrepreneur Astro Teller. Teller’s title–just to underline the operation’s stratospheric aspirations–is ‘Captain of Moonshots.’ (Teller changed his name from Eric to Astro, a reference to the AstroTurf-like buzz cut he sported in high school.) Except for his long hair, beard and mustache, he’s a dead ringer for his paternal grandfather, physicist Edward Teller, the father of the hydrogen bomb.

According to Teller, Google X’s moon shots have three things in common: a significant problem for the world that needs solving, a potential solution and the possibility of breakthrough technology making all the difference. (Making money comes later.) Even a proposed project that meets all these criteria probably won’t make the cut. ‘Sergey and I being pretty excited about it is a necessary but not sufficient condition,’ Teller explains. ‘Depending on what it is, it might require consulting experts, it might require building prototypes, sometimes even forming a temporary team to see where it goes and then saying to the team, ‘It is your goal to kill this idea as fast as possible.’’

Four big Google X efforts are public knowledge. There’s Google Glass, the augmented-reality spectacles that pack a camera and a tiny Web-connected screen you can peek at out of the corner of your right eye and control with your voice and gestures. Makani Power–a startup that the company invested in and then bought outright in May–puts energy-generating wind turbines on flying wings that are tethered to the ground but circle 1,000 ft. in the air. Project Loon aims to deliver Internet access to remote areas of the planet by beaming it wirelessly from 39-ft.-tall helium balloons hovering 12 miles in the sky. Though Calico is a Google X–style long shot, it will be a separate entity from Teller’s shop.

But if you had to pick a Google X moon shot with the most plausible chance of permanently reshaping the way we live, it would be the self-driving automobiles.”

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H.G. Wells thought that Utopia was a place that would separate pristine living spaces from the despoiled, industrialized areas that would be exploited to support them. Google CEO Larry Page seems to have similar ideas. From Nathan Ingraham at the Verge:

“Specifically, [Page] said that ‘not all change is good’ and said that we need to build ‘mechanisms to allow experimentation.’

That’s when his response got really interesting. ‘There are many exciting things you could do that are illegal or not allowed by regulation,’ Page said. ‘And that’s good, we don’t want to change the world. But maybe we can set aside a part of the world.’ He likened this potential free-experimentation zone to Burning Man and said that we need ‘some safe places where we can try things and not have to deploy to the entire world.'”

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From Miguel Helft’s new Fortune interview with Google CEO Larry Page, an exchange about self-driving cars:


When you’re thinking about the next bet you’re going to make, how do you pick?

Larry Page:

That’s something we’ve been thinking about a lot. Unfortunately, there’s not a perfect science to that. Partly I feel that Google is in uncharted territory in the sense that I don’t think there’s an example from history I can take and say: “Why don’t we just do that?” We’re at a pretty big scale. We’re doing a lot of different things. We want to be a different kind of company. We’d like to have more of a social component in what we do. We like people to be happy with the products they’re using. We like our employees to be happy about working here.

Sorry, back to your main question: Choosing what to do. We want to do things that will motivate the most amazing people in the world to want to work on them. You look at self-driving cars. You know a lot of people die, and there’s a lot of wasted labor. The better transportation you have, the more choice in jobs. And that’s social good. That’s probably an economic good. I like it when we’re picking problems like that: big things where technology can have a really big impact. And we’re pretty sure we can do it. And whatever the technology investment we need to do that, it’s not going to be that huge compared to the payoff.


What else would change [in a world with self-driving cars]? Would we not have streetlights? Would the cities be different? Do you have a vision for what could happen?

Larry Page:

It’s very hard to predict entirely. I think that, you know, one of the issues we face here is parking. I’m getting quotes [for] the cost for us to build a parking lot structure [of] $40,000 per space. It’s all concrete and steel. Do you really want to use all your concrete and steel to build parking lots? It seems pretty stupid. If we have automated cars, or even if we have some fraction of automated cars, we’ll save hundreds of millions of dollars on parking, just at Google. When you think about your experience, the car can drop you at the front door to the building you work at and then it goes and parks itself. Whenever you need it, your phone notices that you’re walking out of the building, and your car’s there immediately by the time you get downstairs.”

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Data is key, but perhaps not everything should be quantified. The opening of “Literature Is Not Data,” Stephen Marche’s essay at the L.A. Review of Books:

“BIG DATA IS COMING for your books. It’s already come for everything else. All human endeavor has by now generated its own monadic mass of data, and through these vast accumulations of ciphers the robots now endlessly scour for significance much the way cockroaches scour for nutrition in the enormous bat dung piles hiding in Bornean caves. The recent Automate This, a smart book with a stupid title, offers a fascinatingly general look at the new algorithmic culture: 60 percent of trades on the stock market today take place with virtually no human oversight. Artificial intelligence has already changed health care and pop music, baseball, electoral politics, and several aspects of the law. And now, as an afterthought to an afterthought, the algorithms have arrived at literature, like an army which, having conquered Italy, turns its attention to San Marino.

The story of how literature became data in the first place is a story of several, related intellectual failures.

In 2002, on a Friday, Larry Page began to end the book as we know it. Using the 20 percent of his time that Google then allotted to its engineers for personal projects, Page and Vice-President Marissa Mayer developed a machine for turning books into data. The original was a crude plywood affair with simple clamps, a metronome, a scanner, and a blade for cutting the books into sheets. The process took 40 minutes. The first refinement Page developed was a means of digitizing books without cutting off their spines — a gesture of tender-hearted sentimentality towards print. The great disbinding was to be metaphorical rather than literal. A team of Page-supervised engineers developed an infrared camera that took into account the curvature of pages around the spine. They resurrected a long dormant piece of Optical Character Recognition software from Hewlett-Packard and released it to the open-source community for improvements. They then crowd-sourced textual correction at a minimal cost through a brilliant program called reCAPTCHA, which employs an anti-bot service to get users to read and type in words the Optical Character Recognition software can’t recognize. (A miracle of cleverness: everyone who has entered a security identification has also, without knowing it, aided the perfection of the world’s texts.) Soon after, the world’s five largest libraries signed on as partners. And, more or less just like that, literature became data.”

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A bunch of rich guys, including James Cameron, Ross Perot, Larry Page, Eric Schmidt and Peter H. Diamandis, may be announcing tomorrow that they are getting into the business of asteroid mining, extracting precious resources from zooming space rocks. From Forbes:

“Diamandis has been interested in asteroid mining for a long time, and it sounds like this might be his time to put a plan into action. There are staggering amounts of gold in them thar asteroids, even if they are sort of far away.

‘The earth is a crumb in a supermarket of resources,” Diamandis told Forbes earlier this year. “Now we finally have the technology to extract resources outside earth for the benefit of humanity without having to rape and pillage our planet.'”


Hyperspace, not free of risk, is nonetheless a handy option:

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From Steven Levy’s new book about Google, In the Plex, comes this conversation between company co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin:

“It will be included in people’s brains,” said Page. “When you think about something and don’t really know much about it, you will automatically get information.”

“That’s true,” said Brin. ‘Ultimately I view Google as a way to augment your brain with the knowledge of the world. Right now you go into your computer and type a phrase, but you can imagine that it could be easier in the future, that you can have just devices you talk into, or you can have computers that pay attention to what’s going on around them.”

Page said, “Eventually you’ll have the implant, where if you think about a fact, it will just tell you the answer.” (Thanks NYRB.)•

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Google’s ambition knows few bounds. A note about Google’s goals from a new Fast Company article at the moment when Larry Page assumes leadership of the company:

“Google is not always easily categorized. You can’t shorthand it the way you can with, say, Apple (a consumer electronics company) or Microsoft (a software company). While minimizing the world-changing visions of Steve Jobs and Bill Gates seems unwise, making computers a utility and transforming their power into desirable objects cannot compare with the ambitions of Google’s founders. Page and Brin’s stated mission has been to catalog and analyze all of the world’s information, and their larger, unstated aim is to reform all of the globe’s inefficiencies. In addition to translation and speech recognition, the founders are obsessed with image recognition (Google Goggles), advanced energy solutions (Google Energy), and robotics (check out its self-driving car).

Page and Brin’s big bets don’t always work. Google has had to back off reinventing TV-, radio-, and print-advertising sales; its book-digitization project has become a protracted mess; and its initiatives to make wireless networks more open and to change the way cell-phone carriers sell their plans have failed.

Focus on the misses, though, and you risk overlooking its remarkable successes. Google persists in reforming modern communications networks. Google Voice has taken off. Indeed, in 10 years, we might look back on this moment in Google’s history with surprise. While tech wags slagged Google for losing to Facebook, almost none of us saw it turning into the world’s largest phone company.

That’s what’s thrilling about Page taking the helm at Google right now. You get the sense that under his leadership, Google could try its hand at anything. More than anything else during my interviews with people who know Page, one comment stands out: ‘I don’t care what you put in the article,’ says David Lawee, Google’s head of acquisitions. ‘To me, this is the real story: Larry is a truly awesome inventor-entrepreneur. My aspiration for him is that he becomes one of the greatest inventors-entrepreneurs in history, in the realm of the Thomas Edisons of the world.'”

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Roomba can't intellectualize vacuuming, but it gets the job done. (Image by Larry D. Moore.)

Steven Levy has an excellent piece, “The AI Revolution Is On,”  in the current Wired. In it, Levy points out that artificial intelligence has turned out to be markedly different than what science in the ’50s and ’60s predicted. The reason is because yesterday’s scientists tried to make machines emulate the human brain. But since we still don’t really know how that organ operates, researchers threw away the playbook during the ’80s and have since focused on allowing computers to be “themselves.” An excerpt:

“AI researchers began to devise a raft of new techniques that were decidedly not modeled on human intelligence. By using probability-based algorithms to derive meaning from huge amounts of data, researchers discovered that they didn’t need to teach a computer how to accomplish a task; they could just show it what people did and let the machine figure out how to emulate that behavior under similar circumstances. They used genetic algorithms, which comb through randomly generated chunks of code, skim the highest-performing ones, and splice them together to spawn new code. As the process is repeated, the evolved programs become amazingly effective, often comparable to the output of the most experienced coders.

MIT’s Rodney Brooks also took a biologically inspired approach to robotics. His lab programmed six-legged buglike creatures by breaking down insect behavior into a series of simple commands—for instance, ‘If you run into an obstacle, lift your legs higher.’ When the programmers got the rules right, the gizmos could figure out for themselves how to navigate even complicated terrain. (It’s no coincidence that iRobot, the company Brooks cofounded with his MIT students, produced the Roomba autonomous vacuum cleaner, which doesn’t initially know the location of all the objects in a room or the best way to traverse it but knows how to keep itself moving.)

The fruits of the AI revolution are now all around us. Once researchers were freed from the burden of building a whole mind, they could construct a rich bestiary of digital fauna, which few would dispute possess something approaching intelligence. ‘If you told somebody in 1978, ‘You’re going to have this machine, and you’ll be able to type a few words and instantly get all of the world’s knowledge on that topic,’ they would probably consider that to be AI,’ Google cofounder Larry Page says. ‘That seems routine now, but it’s a really big deal.'”

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