Friday, June 8, 2007

Before Google there was Grep

I think that Google really is an AI, or at least 1/3 of a hybrid AI whose other two thirds are people and writing.

You type a question into a keyboard and so often you get the answer. That was the dream of AI back in the 1960s, and I find it strange that people don't appreciate that we've reached that milestone. People are jaded because they understand how it works. The fact that we thought the problem was so much harder passes unnoticed.

Before Google and the web there were books. People plus books formed a similar hybrid AI that was just slower. We all grew up with literature. The funny thing about it is that we don't think of it as an AI. We remember the things we've read as if all of history, science, art, etc. happened to us, as if we personally knew the people involved, and books are just a way of reminding ourselves of the details we've forgotten, a way to talk to those people again. Human culture has grown accustomed to literature and we are raised as children to think of this AI as part of ourselves.

I used to think this way about grep(*) before there was Google. I was amazed how much trouble people would want to go to to organize things in computer systems, when so often just grepping for a string(**) would find you the thing you wanted. (Funny how similar grep's and Google's names are.)

Google and grep are like the 80/20 solutions that people talk about, only it's 80% of the results with only 2% of the effort.

The power is in the ability to name things. Before computers and the web, indexing, storing and retrieving were hard; now they've become trivial compared to the work of forming a question. I think we haven't intuitively caught up with how much of explicit intelligence is covered by those operations.

And yet it's not that Google is an unacknowledged rival intelligence. Just as books are our heritage, we own the web and Google. It is "our" intelligence. Google is a bunch of glial cells (another g word!), a shepherd to our stuff. If Google were to disappear or misbehave, we would just have to build another.

So, we are strangely arrogant, or rightly so, or both. Maybe this is what it means to be an executive, or the conscious patina on a mind, or a monarch...a titular head. This could be relevant to the question of whether robots will take over, or maybe it's not.

(*) grep is the Unix command that searches for strings, or string patterns (**), within a file or collection of files on a computer.

(**) Oh yeah, a "string" means a word, a name, a phrase--a sequence of typed characters. Patterns mean this "or" that, "anything containing this", "anthing that starts with this," etc. Suddenly I'm self-conscious about thinking of words as sequences of bytes.

Infest Wisely

Infest Wisely is a science-fiction movie whose seven episodes are being posted as they are developed. It seems to be about technology that you install within yourself by swallowing things.