Google puts AI expert in charge of its search algorithms

Google puts AI expert in charge of its search algorithms
By Richard Waters in San Francisco
February 3, 2016 8:14 pm

Google has put an artificial intelligence expert in charge of its search algorithms, signalling a sea change in one of the core technologies of the internet that may ultimately give intelligent machines the job of finding and sorting information for humans.

The search company on Wednesday named John Giannandrea, an expert in machine learning, to run the engineering group that devises its ranking algorithms, the core technology for making sense of the deluge of information on the internet.

He replaces Amit Singhal, an Indian engineer who oversaw a rewrite of Google’s ranking technology after joining 15 years ago. He has since headed its search engineering efforts as the company has consolidated its grip on internet search for most of the world and wrestled with the new approaches to search forced by things such as the rise of smartphone apps.

For Google, Mr Singhal’s departure is as significant as the departure of design chief Sir Jony Ive would be for Apple, said Danny Sullivan, editor of Search Engine Land and a long-time analyst of the search industry.

He called Mr Singhal the “guiding force” behind the Google search engine, which is still the main source of the company’s profits, and an “orchestra leader” who had succeeded in maintaining the quality of the search results as Google has grappled with the mass of new online information and new ways of searching.

His departure coincides with a wave of investment in artificial intelligence at Google, both to boost the overall quality of its core products as well as support a push into newer fields such as driverless cars and robotics.

The projects Mr Giannandrea has been in charge of at Google include RankBrain, a neural network — modelled on how layers of neurons in the brain interact — that tries to use machine intelligence to improve the ranking of search results without the intervention of human programmers.

Hopes pinned on developing system into a powerful and profitable set of services
Despite the growing importance of AI, machines are not likely to seize control of Google’s search algorithms for the foreseeable future, said Mr Sullivan. The technology has been put to use by Google to better understand what searchers are looking for, he said, but it is still a stretch for it to predict which piece of information people will find most useful.

Nevertheless, the rise of an AI expert to head the rankings group points to an underlying shift in the technology that could one day see much of the job of search ranking left to machines, said Greg Sterling, an analyst at the Local Search Association in the US.

The technology shift might one day leave Google’s search engineers facing the risk of being put out of work by intelligent machines as workers in other fields, Mr Sterling said, though he added that there was always likely to be some level of human oversight.
“There will always be some sort of human oversight or spot-checking,” Mr Sterling said. “There will always be someone in the control room.”

Mr Singhal has long used the fictional intelligent computer on Star Trek as the model for the perfect search engine. In a post on Google+ announcing he was leaving the company, he said he had first dreamt of the idea when growing up in the Himalayas. “My dream Star Trek computer is becoming a reality, and it is far better than what I ever imagined,” he added.


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