Google, search, and Star Trek

I love seeing people write about Google's long-term ambitions.  It's so cool to see people display publicly the struggle to understand the volume of what Google is trying to accomplish with search, the struggle just to believe that, when Google employees talk about their goals, they're telling the truth.

Farhad Manjoo at Slate.com has a great article, Where No Search Engine Has Gone Before, about his journey toward comprehending, and believing (if not necessarily believing in), Google's ambitions.

 “The Star Trek computer is not just a metaphor that we use to explain to others what we're building,” [head of search rankings team Amit] Singhal told me. “It is the ideal that we're aiming to build—the ideal version done realistically.” He added that the search team does refer to Star Trek internally when they’re discussing how to improve the search engine. “It comes up often,” Singhal said. “For instance, we might say, ‘Captain Kirk never pulled out a keyboard to ask a question.’ So in that way it becomes one of the design principles—we see that because the Star Trek computer actively relies on speech, if we want to do that we need to work to push the barrier of speech recognition and machine understanding.”

What does it mean that Google really is trying to build the Star Trek computer? I take it as a cue to stop thinking about Google as a “search engine.” [...] A search engine has several key problems. First, most of the time it doesn’t give you an answer—it gives you links to an answer. Second, it doesn’t understand natural language; [...]. Third, and perhaps most importantly, a search engine needs for you to ask it questions—it doesn’t pipe in with information when you need it, without your having to ask.

One of the things I love about where Google is going with search (although this point is more optimistic than Google has necessarily justified) is the opportunities it creates to make the world a better place.  Manjoo quotes a question Google struggles with, near the end of the article:  "Why are men jerks?"  If, instead of taking you to a bunch of websites that validate that position, Google answers outright with a discussion of complexity and individual identities, Google will naturally shift the whole of plugged-in human experience to greater peace and understanding.