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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.

He takes seriously Google's informal and clunky motto, "Don't be evil", and launches into a story about an African villager, plagued by ants destroying his potato crop, pedalling to a cyber cafe and learning from the internet that wood ash scattered on the crop was the answer to his problems. The villager then posted his findings on a wooden noticeboard so the entire district could benefit. Knowledge. The internet as community noticeboard in the service of humanity. Mean­while, Singhal takes unaffected pleasure in yet another Google innovation.

He recalls his two great loves as a child growing up in the city of Jhansi in northern India. Cricket ("I think we'll give you Australians a hard time this summer," he twinkles) and watching Star Trek on TV. "Captain Kirk and Spock," he says,"talking to the computer!" It was, of course, a mere science-fiction fantasy to the child who, through education and superior intellect, would soon battle his way out of the old fort city on the high plains of Uttar Pradesh. No longer. Singhal picks up his mobile phone (fitted with the latest Android system) and asks it, "What's the height of the Eiffel Tower?"

"It is 1063 feet tall," the phone informs him within a millisecond. He grins. His answer has come from "the cloud", a million of Google's powerful computers sitting in numerous secret data centres around the world, all working in concert to search the internet and to respond to any question he might toss into his little hand-held device. The device, in effect, is a supercomputer. "Mobile combined with the cloud combined with voice - that's the very near future," he says.

Another of his colleagues, T. V. Raman, a Google research guru in engineering devices that offer increasingly easy access to the benefits of the internet to the sightless, has reason to agree. Raman has been blind since he was a child, also growing up in India. His smartphone, equipped with a GPS device he calls a walkie-talkie, is at least as useful to him as his beloved labrador seeing-eye dog. He invites me to understand that his and my reasons for using a smartphone are not so different.

"Why do you use your phone or your computer?" he demands. "It's not because of the pleasure of pushing those coloured buttons." The point, he says, is to learn what you do not know, and if you happen to be blind, you have to solve problems before anyone else. He learnt Braille when he was 17 but, coming late to it, he wasn't fast. He compensated by creating his own Braille shorthand, and found his way through the University of Pune, India, the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay and on to Cornell University in the US, earning a master's in computer science and a PhD in applied mathematics.


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