The Challenge of Computing on a Planetary Scale: Inside Google’s Faculty Summit


For the first time, Google held its annual Americas Faculty Summit in our New York City offices. On July 14th and 15th, about 100 faculty members from universities in the western hemisphere attended the two-day summit, which focused on systems, artificial intelligence, and mobile computing. Google New York is our second largest office outside of our HQ in Mountain View and it employs more than 2,300 employees, about half of whom work in engineering and computer science.

We run this gathering each year to stay on the cutting edge of technology and innovation, and we learn enormously from the vibrant computer science research community in our universities. But, we also want to share with the faculty our experiences, which often relate to doing computer science at planetary scale. (Even we are amazed as to how much processing we do!) This helps the faculty do a better job focusing their research and preparing students. The field of computer science has endless challenges and is still sufficiently young that progress will continue to accelerate—and that’s good for our users, our industry, and our company. Of course, we also want to maintain Google’s reputation for quirkiness, irreverence, and passionate excellence, so that we can attract and hire the next generation of computer scientists.

While it’s difficult to cover all the topics at a two day event, I’ll provide some highlights. Johan Schalkwyk, one of our top speech scientists in New York, described some of the fascinating challenges related to implementing speech recognition on mobile phones. One goal, for example, is to get a device to execute any spoken search query, regardless of the accent of the user. While this sounds simple, it is a grand challenge problem in artificial intelligence. Our voice systems, which are available on Android, iPhone and other mobile devices, are trained on over 230 billion spoken utterances and possess a one million word vocabulary—and we are working to make them even better. Interestingly, we have a new challenge: Quite often, our systems are even more accurate than the humans that rate them for accuracy, making it challenging to evaluate our own quality!

In the domain of ultra-large software systems, John Wilkes, a distinguished engineer from Mountain View, spoke to the audience about a new system we are building that will automatically manage the seemingly endless number of computers in Google’s worldwide data centers.

Some of these computers are working round the clock answering user queries, processing e-mail, or otherwise attending to tasks that require instantaneous responses. Other computers are working on long jobs, for example, actually learning to do language translation from vast corpora in English, French, German, Chinese, etc. The key, John described, is to make sure that we can easily specify the requirements of each job that needs to run, and then have an uber-manager, “the cluster management system,” automatically allocate those jobs to the right sets of computers in a way that maximizes performance while minimizing costs. Our current cluster management system is seven years old, and we discussed its success and challenges, as well as our hopes for the new system we are building to replace it.

While you wouldn’t think that professors of computer science would be interested in shopping or commerce, Andrew Moore, a former professor at Carnegie Mellon and now the Director of Google’s Pittsburgh office, described the deep research questions in areas such as shoe shopping. How can we implement a system to analyze the image of a shoe—its color, shape and pattern? How can we show a pair of shoes that someone might purchase based on this image analysis? How can we simultaneously provide accurate results of shoes a shopper would most likely purchase, without showing shoes they would not like, and provide the serendipitous connections that a shopper would experience in a real store? Optimization, computer vision algorithms, auction theory and more all play a role, and are the subject of active research not only at Google, but across the computer science community.

The field of computer science is, in many ways, a large expanding sphere that grows into ever more domains of applicability. The greatest recent successes have been at the boundary of computer science and virtually every other discipline. So, we covered quite a diversity of topics in New York. There is more on our research blog and also on the Official Google Blog, where you can even see a poem by NYU Professor Ken Perlin in iambic pentameter, musing about the future of mobile devices.

Alfred Spector is Vice President of Research and Special Initiatives at Google. Follow @

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