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Friday, April 2, 2010

Direct Heirs of Artificial Intelligence

As Stanford students, Larry Page and Sergey Brin inherited a long, rich technological tradition. Using the term tradition in conjunction with a company that developed a brand-new technology might seem strange, but their breakthrough was a direct outgrowth of the concept of artificial intelligence (AI), which had been in development at some universities for half a century. When Page and Brin explain Google's mission, "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful," they are simply repeating the memex agenda—a theoretical project envisioned by Vannevar Bush, one of the more important American scientists during the presidencies of Franklin Roosevelt and Harry Truman.

Seeing the debt Google owes Bush is easy when you read an article he wrote in 1945, against the backdrop of World War II, when he was a scientific advisor to the White House:

There is a growing mountain of research. But there is increased evidence that we are being bogged down today as specialization extends. The investigator is staggered by the findings and conclusions of thousands of other workers—conclusions which he cannot find time to grasp, much less to remember, as they appear. Yet specialization becomes increasingly necessary for progress, and the effort to bridge between disciplines is correspondingly superficial. Professionally our methods of transmitting and reviewing the results of research are generations old and by now are totally inadequate for their purpose.… The summation of human experience is being expanded at a prodigious rate, and the means we use for threading through the consequent maze to the momentarily important item is the same as was used in the days of square-rigged ships.… A record if it is to be useful to science, must be continuously extended, it must be stored, and above all it must be consulted.

Bush went on to list some contemporary techniques likely to address this problem before describing an imaginary machine called a memex. It sounded like science fiction at the time, but this machine nourished the dreams of technology experts and artificial intelligence advocates for decades until it became a reality:

Consider a future device for individual use, which is a sort of mechanized private file and library. It needs a name, and, to coin one at random, "Memex" will do. A Memex is a device in which an individual stores all his books, records, and communications, and which is mechanized so that it may be consulted with exceeding speed and flexibility. It is an enlarged intimate supplement to his memory.

These early stages of modern Information Science were one source of Page and Brin's ambition and vision to make all the information in the world accessible. The Google co-founders were also given access to a considerable body of research. Universities played an important part in developing technology hubs, not only by training professionals who would go to work for the surrounding companies but also by making the work of their researchers freely accessible.

This tradition helped form Page and Brin's values and convictions. In particular, they had confidence in the capabilities of computers and the automation initiatives at the core of their corporate model

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