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I think, therefore I Google: search giant's quest to capture knowledge

Tony Wright (via SMH) | Nov. 29, 2011
If you want to find out something these days, you Google it. But being the planet's go-to search engine just isn't enough for the booming company, which is fast moving towards a radical new technological frontier, writes Tony Wright for the Good Weekend magazine.

In search of wisdom … Amit Singhal, Google’s revered “Visionary”. Photo: Hugh Hamilton

As well as Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, who are all but worshipped at the Googleplex (Google's sprawling campus in the aptly named town of Mountain View, south of San Francisco), Singhal is among the company's most revered figures. If Google, as some contend, is as consequential to the modern world as Johannes Gutenberg was to the Renaissance, Amit Singhal is a sort of super-charged Melvil Dewey of the digital age.

In 1876, Melvil Dewey revolutionised libraries. His Dewey decimal system, still used, meant any book could easily be found and returned to its proper place, just as Singhal and his team constantly tweak algorithms to enable Google's search engine to pluck information from the ether and order it in descending levels of importance.

As Good Weekend is ushered in to meet him, an aide whispers, "You are about to meet The Visionary." It sounds over the top, and may also be a nod to his age, 43 - old in Google years - but a few moments with Amit Singhal challenge any preconceived notions about computer nerds.

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Enjoy the slide … former Melburnian Glen Murphy hits the slippery dip at Google’s Silicon Valley headquarters. Photo: Hugh Hamilton

"I think search is rather inadequate," he says of the work that has taken 20 years of his life, 10 of them at Google. "I can't even ask it for simple information like, 'Do mosquito nets that are laced with anti-insect spray work more effectively than mosquito nets that are not laced with insect spray?', for instance," he says.

"Search might give some result, but you can't rely on it." Information is fine, but turning it into knowledge is mightier. The future.

Therein lies an unspoken fear. There are one million people employed in NASDAQ-listed high-tech businesses in Silicon Valley alone. A lot of those people, plus millions more across the world, are working on their own ideas about snatching the future.

No one can guarantee their conceits will last; not even Google, disrupter of everything from traditional media's advertising revenue to retailers of printed books and GPS systems. (Google Maps, invented in Australia, bought by Google and still run from Sydney, very nearly destroyed the business plans of sat-nav companies that once charged monthly fees for something Google has made free.)

 

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