Home » Artificial Intelligence » Google’s robot and artificial intelligence acquisitions are anything but scary

Google’s robot and artificial intelligence acquisitions are anything but scary

Forget all the talk of machines taking over, Google’s robot and artificial Intelligence acquisitions will not More timelead human’s down the path of the dinosaur and dido towards extinction.

Google is in the business of providing information. Its mission is to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful.

Google’s acquisition of DeepMind significantly augments its ability to collect and organize data to enhance its services towards its stated mission. The Google executive team knows what the big data evangelists have been claiming for some time – the chance to gather data effectively is a game changer. It also gets patents on improved image search capabilities.

I’ve written before on the 8 robotic acquisitions Google completed in 2013. Maybe we will hear more about the cost of those acquisitions during Google’s Q4, 2013 Earning’s release after the closing bell on Thursday 30th January 2014. I still stand firm that much of those acquisitions are connected to Google’s mapping related activities. As I wrote at the time:

Maps are clearly at the core of Google’s development strategy, from driverless cars, online shopping and search, to wearable technology. Many of the recent robot acquisitions will enhance Google’s mobile strategy and improve its delivery services, hardware capabilities and above all localization experiences. “Google’s geographic data may become its most valuable asset. Not solely because of this data alone, but because location data makes everything else Google does and knows more valuable.”

This week’s acquisition of DeepMind (which I wrote about here) has gathered a huge amount of press attention considering the relatively small amount Google paid ($500 million), compared to the recent Waze acquisition ($ 969 million), Nest acquisition ($3.2 billion) and Motorola ($12.4 billion).

Much of the media, and indeed social media hype, has expressed comments that Google now has the ability to build Skynet, the self-aware artificial intelligence system from the Terminator movies, focusing on the fact that – “the technology could be used to controversial ends,” – hence Google was required to establish an Ethics board as part of the DeepMind acquisition, which: “will devise rules for how Google can and can’t use the technology.”

The DeepMind technology is indeed somewhat impressive and closer to a level of artificial intelligence than many others. Maybe the reinforcement learning of the DeepMind technology can be compared to IBM Watson as the closest other known technology currently available – and that’s a big maybe, but with the team Google has built and its capabilities in Machine Learning, and Artificial Intelligence the DeepMind acquisition certainly could give it similar ‘supercomputing’ capabilities as Watson.

IBM Watson, like Google’s ambitions are not something we should fear, they are developments we should embrace. According to IBM’s John Kelly and Steve Hamm, writing in their book: Smart Machines: IBM’s Watson and the Era of Cognitive Computing:

“The goal isn’t to replicate human brains, though. This isn’t about replacing human thinking with machine thinking.  Rather, in the era of cognitive systems, humans and machines will collaborate to produce better results – each bringing their own superior skills to the partnership.  The machines will be more rational and analytic – and, of course, possess encyclopedic memories and tremendous computational abilities. People will provide judgment, intuition, empathy, a moral compass and human creativity.”

But let me get to the point – and back to focusing on Google’s mission. Google believes organizing the world’s data will make us more productive and therefore its services will be more useful.

Through its Google Now service it wants to offer us the ability to talk with and have question and answer sessions with our personal assistant, or cybernetic friend. Think the Star Trek computer or ‘assistant.’ Although, personally I see it more as Jarvis, (or more correctly: J.A.R.V.I.S. Just A Rather Very Intelligent System) from the Iron Man franchise, the AI system which ‘acts’ as Tony Stark’s best friend.

Let’s turn to two high-ranking executives within Google for an idea of the big problem that Google could solve with DeepMind’s technology improving Google Now’s service. First if we listen to Astro Teller, the Captain of Moonshots at Google X (a moonshot is a long term project to solve a problem with a radical (often futuristic) solution). Astro said in a video presentation one of the biggest problems to be solved was “having more time.” He talks about one of the biggest issues most people claim is they “don’t have enough time.” And being able to help people have more time, or manage their time better could be ‘building the impossible.’

Now let’s not get carried away Google will not attempt to slow down the rotation of the earth, but through its Google Now assistant service it could work with us to enhance our own neurological limits, which lead us to forgetfulness and oversights by providing an information rich, data system designed to support our needs.

If that sounds far fetched, consider what Google Executive Chairman, Eric Schmidt writes in his latest book: The New Digital Age – Reshaping the future of people, nations and business:

Centralizing the many moving parts of one’s life into an easy to use almost intuitive system of information management and decision-making will give all interactions with technology an effortless feel. These systems will free us of many small burdens, including errands to do list and assorted monitoring tasks – that today add stress and chip away at our mental focus throughout the day. By relying on these integrated systems, which will encompass both the professional and the personal sides of our lives, we’ll be able to use our time more effectively each day.

Suggestion engines that offer alternative terms to help a user find what she is looking for will be a particularly useful aid in efficiency by consistently stimulating our thinking process, ultimately enhancing our creativity, not preempting it. So there will be plenty of ways to procrastinate too but the point is that when you choose to be productive, you can do so with greater capacity.

Mr. Schmidt further adds:

Other advances in the pipeline in areas like robotics, artificial intelligence and voice recognition will introduce efficiency into our lives by providing more seamless forms of engagement with the technology in our daily routines.

This technology will surely save many of us time in our daily affairs.

No, Google does not have ambitions to be Skynet! Its machines are not taking over. It is working on providing an assistant to help us manage the one resource humans have failed so miserably to do for generations, manage our time better with a personal interactive assistant.

On another level, and further technology advances which will have appealed to Google (and perhaps why Facebook was so interested), DeepMind engineers Benjamin Coppin and Mustafa Suleyman recently filed 2 patents which cover intelligent ways to improve the process of “reverse image search,” the ability of uploading a picture to a search engine which allows it to find similar ones. Of course to some extent this is already possible on Google’s image search, but it sometimes returns irrelevant images. The US patent filing 2014/0019484, by the DeepMind engineers reveals a unique approach; it allows the user to input two images, then it lets the algorithm find similarities between the two, and then search for those instead.

The second patent (filed by the same two engineers) enables the user to home in on a small area of two pictures to improve image search still further.

And let’s not forget Google is in the business of providing search.

Photo credit JoC


  1. synthverity says:

    I agree with you in that the idea of Google trying to create a concept like Skynet is ridiculous, given that Skynet was a negative for everybody which included the creators. However, there is another aspect that seems much more plausible and frightening to some. With an increase in Google’s ability to work more in creating the interactive assistant that everybody wants, it comes with the double edge of control over data. As you said “the chance to gather data effectively is a game changer”, but this also means that gives the ability to limit data. While I do not believe that Google means to control our information, which is argued to be form of mind control, I do see the personalization of data could lead to a style of information control. It still leaves the information available for people to find, but people tend to like confirmation bias, which can happen more often with data personalization. None of it feels intentional, but it is a viable fear, and one that does need addressing.

  2. That’s a fine article, Colin. I think there are several reasons some people have the “Skynet” fear when it comes to Google:
    1) They’ve hired Kurzweil, who is unabashedly in favor of a singularity event, a possibility that is typically viewed with high uncertainty (thus the name, of course)
    2) As Google, IBM, DARPA, the Chinese government and untold other business and governmental enterprises join the artificial general intelligence “arms race,” the concerns of people such as Bill Joy and James Barrat gain greater traction in the media and elsewhere. That’s largely because this is exactly the type of ramping-up trend they’ve been predicting.
    3) There is, as you’ve noted, a powerful learning component associated with the DeepMind patent. By itself, this is not terribly threatening to people who have some grasp of the issues. However, this idea of automated learning would likely be an important component of a true AGI, if such a thing is possible.
    Even as those kinds of concern grow (and I expect they will in coming years), there are privacy issues that naturally arise from such developments. The smarter the systems “watching” us (or just analyzing our data), the more some people will resent the entire system. Google and others need to beware a full-fledged backlash. I’ve little doubt that there will be a continuing movement toward DuckDuckGo, cryptography and other strategies for allowing people to maintain their privacy. The question is how far that trend will ultimately go.

  3. Thanks for the link, Colin. It’s a very good article. I tend to agree that there are certain feedback loops on which we can count: when one danger arises, we develop a sort of immune response to it. We should keep in mind, however, that as with autoimmune responses in the body, they usually work but not always. Sometimes there are unexpected mutations (like pandemic viruses) that elude such systems to catastrophic effects, and sometimes they are simply overwhelmed by too many simultaneous assaults. If we view our species as a single body, we’ve got to watch out for both.

    By the way, if you haven’t already, I recommend reading “Our Final Invention.” It’s a more focused but also more in-depth rendering of some of Joy’s arguments. It’d be great to get your thoughts on it via your blog. It was interesting to hear that Shane Legg actually sees the dangers himself. In fact, he sounds downright pessimistic: “’Eventually, I think human extinction will probably occur, and technology will likely play a part in this,’ DeepMind’s Shane Legg said in an interview with Alexander Kruel. Among all forms of technology that could wipe out the human species, he singled out artificial intelligence, or AI, as the ‘number 1 risk for this century.'” http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/01/29/google-ai_n_4683343.html

    I thought the news about Google’s ethics board was heartening. I hope there will be more steps in that direction.

    • Colin Lewis says:

      You are right about the dangers and how we should highlight them. I read interview with Shane Long it was disturbing. With respect to the ethics board, Peter Norvig Research Director of Google wrote in his book (the most popular AI book) that “AI raises more questions than nuclear weapons technology.” I wrote a post about it at the and of last week.

      I really like Our Final Invention, I left my copy in mainland Europe and have just ordered a new copy. James has written a very timely and wise book. I have been meaning to write a blog on it and some other books – thanks for the nudge. Do you interact with James on Twitter? He is very responsive and conversational.

  4. Yes, he and I have swapped a few messages. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on that one via a blog. And thanks for the thoughtful conversation.

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