Google Gets A Second Brain, Changing Everything About Search

12/12/12Follow @wroush

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2 million species so far, on its way to 10 million at the most. “That is not a billion things, that is 10 million,” says Giannandrea. By the same token, “There are thousands of models of cars, not billions. There are a lot of sub-genres of Mexican restaurants, but you would be hard pressed to come up with more than 100.”

Google’s oft-repeated mission is to organize all the world’s information, and if you listen to Giannandrea long enough, you start to realize that the company really means it. The startling truth is that for Google, reducing our whole world to a semantic graph isn’t a storage challenge or a computing challenge. The only real question is knowing how many entities is enough for practical purposes, and recognizing when the project has reached a point of diminishing returns. In fact, the Knowledge Graph is already so large that its growth curve is beginning to flatten out, Giannandrea says.

“I do think there is such a thing has having enough knowledge to be useful,” he says. “If you’ve already got every written work, every product, and every populated place on Earth represented, a lot of the big items are covered. There are certainly more things in the Knowledge Graph than I will ever know about in my lifetime. So it’s already big enough for one person.”

Doodling with the Knowledge Panel

Of course, to be useful across Google’s network, the Knowledge Graph needs to be big enough for everyone. That’s why the company has been putting a lot of effort this year into internationalizing the graph. That’s a twofold problem, according to Shashi Thakur. There’s the language aspect—every entity in the graph needs to be associated with its correct name, not just in English but in French, Italian, Japanese, German, Russian, Spanish, and Portuguese. But just as crucially, there’s a local aspect. Queries against the Knowledge Graph often need to be interpreted differently depending on the user’s location. If you type in “Corinthians” from the U.S., for example, you’re probably searching for information about the seventh book of the New Testament, so that’s what you’ll see in the knowledge panel. But in Brazil, you’ll see links to Sport Club Corinthians, the famous São Paulo-based soccer team.

Internationalization is just one of the problems Google has had to tackle to make the Knowledge Graph useful. Another is how to present the information in the first place. At the moment, Knowledge Graph results can take one of three forms:

1. If your question has a definite, simple answer, the result will often appear in the form of a card at the very top of the regular search results. Say you’re meeting a friend at the airport and you’re wondering when their flight will arrive. Type in the flight number, and Google will show you the arrival time in big type, along with a simple graphic showing the flight’s progress.

2. Most often, Knowledge Graph results show up in the form of a knowledge panel to the right of the regular search results. The panel may include factoids about your search term, maps, photos, event listings, or links and thumbnails for related entities in the graph (the query “Vatican” produces links for “Pope,” “Holy See,” “Vatican Museum,” and “Vatican City”). A knowledge panel will appear whenever “we have high confidence that we know what you’re searching for,” according to Giannandrea.

3. If the best answer to your query is a list rather than a specific entity, you’ll see what Google calls a “carousel”—a scrolling row of thumbnail images. To see an example of a carousel, go to Google and try a search term like “Ernest Hemingway books” or “Leonardo da Vinci paintings.” Thakur calls the carousel “a more elaborate answer to a more complex question” and says it’s often the best presentation when the results call for interactivity and exploration.

Shashi Thakur, a principal engineer at Google, leads the team integrating the Knowledge Graph into Google's core search product.

Shashi Thakur, a principal engineer at Google, leads the team integrating the Knowledge Graph into Google's core search product.

That’s all Google has rolled out publicly so far, but in the future, results derived from the Knowledge Graph will take many other forms, says Thakur. “There are lots of things people are doodling around with right now,” he says. “As the graph gets deeper and richer and broader, with more connections and more topics, that enables many more applications.”

As an example, Thakur says certain types of searches could yield “fancy infographics”—look up Saturn, and it might appear as part of an interactive graphic of the solar system. Or search “universities in California” and you might see all of them arrayed on a map. (Right now you see their seals or mascots in a carousel, which probably isn’t the most natural way to present this particular list.) The possibilities multiply when you consider how many Google searches are now initiated from smartphones and tablets, which can accommodate more kinds of inputs and outputs, including speech.

Over time, Google users should expect to Knowledge Graph results popping up more and more often. “A user should learn to depend on the knowledge panel just existing,” says Thakur. “The biggest reason we trigger it some times and not other times is because we want to be really careful not to dilute the experience, and trigger it only in cases where we offer utility. But as the size of the graph grows, there will be increasing areas of the query space where we can show you that utility.”

And the Knowledge Graph isn’t just about search—its utility is already being felt in less overt ways in other Google products, Thakur says. If you have a television with Google TV software built in, you can … Next Page »

Wade Roush is a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @wroush

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  • Prasad

    To boldly go where no one has gone before… Google is doing it… without waiting for the 24th century…

    • gesster

      and to steal all of your data…

  • foutight

    Good guy google!

    • gesster

      you obviously don’t know a whole lot about google.

      i’d suggest you go to duckduckgo to see some of the evil that your precious google does

  • John Ellis

    Brilliant researched article thanks! I had forgotten how much google had changed. Google ability to buy in change marks it as different. It is by far the safest way to advent Artificial Intelligence. When I started on the internet no-one trusted credit card transactions and there weren’t search engines. That’s only 13 years ago!

    I challenge the idea that memory and data storage is necessary: with enough calculation power and enough speed, you could generate any memory string to order in any context.

    That’s difficult philosophically but it’s true.

    So one possible future of google is calculation on vast scales, possible with super-recursive algorithms or quantum computing.

  • Sunil

    Great article. Google really has changed many things but It is more comfortable for a ordinary person.

  • Jacob Varghese

    Nice article. Makes in-context content creation that much more important for future online health.

  • http://www.about.me/kennethtrueman Kenneth Trueman

    I was contributing to Freebase back in 2007. Thought it was pretty cool then. Went back and did some more just now. Thanks for the article that explains how this stuff is helpful.

  • rahulanand

    Way to go… KG is definately the future :)

  • gesster

    ai probably isn’t even possible, how does google account for the chinese room? google is evil and terrible… run away, run fast