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Larry Page, Strong AI, and My Leaking Shower

larry page

At a zeitgeist event at Google a few years back, I remember Larry Page saying the perfect search engine could take any query and always return the perfect answer for you. In short, search as strong AI. I couldn’t find that quote online, but here’s a similar snippet from Page’s AAAS keynote from Feb 17, ’07 (great talk) (video of talk, quote about 30 minutes in):

My prediction is that when AI happens, it is going to be a lot of computation, and not so much clever blackboard, whiteboard kind of stuff, clever algorithms, but just a lot of computation…

We have some people at Google who are really trying to build artificial intelligence, and do it at a large scale and so on. In fact, to make search better, we really need to make, ah, you know, to do the perfect job of search, you could ask any query, and it would give you the perfect answer and that would be artificial intelligence, right? Based on everything being on the web, which is a pretty close approximation. So, we’re lucky enough to be working incrementally closer to that. But again, very very few people are working on this, and I don’t think it is that far off as people think.

I thought of Page’s quote about the perfect search result because our shower sprung a slow leak.

sweat copper pipe

The problem turned out to be in the wall: a cracked joint where the shower stub-up angles to the shower head. I considered calling a local repair place, Albemarle Plumbing. As my wife is traveling and I enjoy projects, I decided it might be fun to try the repair myself tomorrow after work.

It has been some years since I’ve soldered pipe so I googled copper plumbing how to sweat to get tips. While entering the query, I mused that if my sensible wife were home, she’d tell me to call in the plumber and skip the whole DIY-with-a-torch thing.

Here’s the search result page I got:

That first sponsored link? AdWords telling me to call Albemarle Plumbing. Creepy!

Yes, I know this is just a broad match on “plumbing” running on local search.

I was logged in to my Google account, and Google knows my zipcode, perhaps from a weather widget on iGoogle or through my local movie searches. And so my “plumbing” search in Charlottesville pulled up that ad.

This result isn’t strong AI by any means. It is a modern mechanical duck, a technical trick that appears to be doing far more than it actually is.

But encountering such a perfectly targeted ad gave me a deep startle. Troubling, almost, the seeming intelligence which can emerges from simple rules applied to mountains of data.

Postscript: When writing this post, I followed the paid link to virginiaplumbing.com to check out Albemarle Plumbing’s web site. Turns out they’re not online yet. Turns out virginiaplumbing.com redirects to linkuwant.com, a domainer running AdSense spam. Google’s strong AI driving traffic to a MFA site — ah, the irony!

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  • Alan Rimm-Kaufman
    Alan Rimm-Kaufman founded the Rimm-Kaufman Group...
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