The Spirit of Trek – Google

By Mike Medeiros

Welcome to the Spirit of Trek, a weekly column where we identify and celebrate Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity by discovering how its messages has started to permeate throughout humanity’s collective consciousness by looking for it on the Internet and within popular culture. This week we’re going to be stepping away from the metaphysical and examining the technological aspect of that vision.

One of the common themes of Star Trek over the years has been the usage of technology as a way of enhancing our lives. Devices such as communicators, PADDs and computers have already found their way into our culture. Although, variations of these devices are currently available, many of them still have a long way to go until they truly become the technology that Roddenberry envisioned.

As an avid listener of Roddenberry’s Mission Log Podcast, I’m reminded of one of these devices: the computer. In their show, they have a computer generated voice moderating the show that was reminiscent of Majel Barrett’s most famous role on Star Trek as the voice of the computer. The sweet voice of the computer responding in natural language to the crew’s queries still seemed to be a thing of science fiction. Or is it science fact?

This week, we’re going to be taking a closer look at Google. If any company was working on such technology, surely Google would be. Then, on September 7th of this year, the search company celebrated Star Trek’s 46th Anniversary with a very special interactive Google Doodle that was posted to their site an entire day early and ran throughout the anniversary. For Google, this was an uncommon occurrence, since most Doodles are posted for 24 hours for whatever event they were trying to emphasize. This made me wonder if there was a Star Trek connection to Google’s work.

Google was founded in 1998 by Larry Page and Sergey Brin. The company may have started off in the search business, but they have expanded beyond it to include a variety of useful services including Google Earth, Gmail, and Google+ among others. They have also ventured into the realm of connected devices such as phones and tablets with the Android OS, and their upcoming Google Glasses. Even as they move into other products and services, theyir philosophy to focus and continually improve upon their best product (search), while providing the best experience to their users in a fast and open manner, regardless of where they are or what they’re doing remains as true today as it was when they first began. But, where was the Star Trek connection that seemed to be just hidden below the surface.

During my research for this article, I came across a quote from Larry Page: “The Star Trek computer doesn’t seem that interesting. They ask it random questions, it thinks for a while. I think we can do better than that.” It was a bold statement that intrigued me and prompted me to keep searching.

When Roddenberry first conceived of the computer in the 1960s, a lot of what he imagined was purely fiction. There was nothing to compare with the AI that he portrayed living within the Enterprise’s computer banks. Here we are 46 years later, and Google now believes that they can do better? Why not? I continued with my research to find evidence of it. That’s when I came across a video on YouTube entitled Breakfast with Google’s Search Team, dated August 8th of this year (the same day as this year’s STLV). You can find the video below.

The video begins with Amit Singhal, SVP of Engineering at Google, discussing the future of search. He shares a story of his childhood growing up in India, where he had watched endless reruns of Star Trek. After his story, he explains enthusiastically that the future of search is to become the computer as it was seen onboard the starship Enterprise. It was a loyal assistant that never failed to give the crew whatever answer they sought of it.

Amit summarizes the technical challenges that must be overcome in order to achieve the goal of making Gene’s vision of a personable interactive computer a reality. The biggest hurdle is getting the collective knowledge of humanity into one location and building upon it. The web has become that repository with more than 30 trillion unique URLs. However, this is only the first step. The next challenge is to understand that knowledge and connect it to objects within the real world.  The third issue that must be resolved pertains to the question of universality, which deals with the idea of making people’s personal information available as part of humanity’s collective knowledge.

Shashi Thakur, Technical Lead of Knowledge Graph for Google, stepped up to the podium. He demonstrated the progress that had been made in achieving Amit’s goals in connecting search terms to real world objects. In his example, he searched for “Rio” and in the autocomplete box; several real world places were listed including the Rio hotel and casino, the home of Star Trek Las Vegas.

Shashi was followed by Jack Menzel, the Director of Product Management for Knowledge Graph, who continued Shashi’s demonstration by stating that one of their goals for Knowledge Graph is to predict certain behaviors that their users may undertake while searching. He had several examples available of the predictive nature of Knowledge Graph, but his most interesting was a search for the amusement park in Cedar Point, which promptly anticipated his next query by displaying thumbnails of the various rides that can be found there, linked to relevant information.

Sagar Kamdar, Director of Product Management for Universal Search talked about his team’s strides to tackle the issue of universality. He introduced a new field trial of Gmail that was enhanced with security and privacy features that allowed them to integrate Gmail messages into the user’s search results. He demonstrates the new feature by searching for “my flights”. The results searched his email for information pertaining to upcoming flights and displayed the data from the message pertaining to his impending flight to Las Vegas on August 8th, with information mentioning that the flight was on time. It was taking personal information from the user and providing them with up to date information relating to it. It was impressive.

Scott Huffman, the Engineering Director of Mobile followed Sagar by talking about the computer of the future. He had said that it could be in the room with them or carried around in people’s pocket, and it should be able to understand natural language. In order to deliver the promise of Star Trek’s computer, several issues have to be addressed, including relevance, speech recognition, and the usage of natural language responses. He explains that they have spent most of their time working on relevance, but they have made great strides over the years to resolve the issues with speech recognition’s speed and accuracy. However, he spent his time during the presentation demonstrating their progress in addressing the third problem, the understanding of natural language.

He introduced the latest Google Search App for the iPhone and iPad that featured voice-based question and answers. During his demonstration, he used the device’s speech recognition software to ask for the weather, directions, information on a Giants game, show times at his theater of choice, the location of nearby pizzerias, a mathematical calculation, and even flight information about his upcoming trip. Each of the questions were answered with the appropriate information on screen, but also by an almost human like voice answering his query in a very natural way. I was amazed by what I had seen.

The video concluded with Amit Singhal’s closing statements. He stated rather enthusiastically his belief that his team at Google will make Star Trek’s computer a reality. I have to admit that I was impressed by what I had seen in that video. Google certainly had been working to bring Gene Roddenberry’s vision for the future of computers to us today. If they were working on this now, I wondered what would be next for the search company. Perhaps it’ll be LCARS (Library Computer Access / Retrieval System). If so, who knows what will be possible in the 23rd and 24th centuries.

With entrepreneurs and businesses striving to develop technologies that were inspired by those seen on Star Trek, we can assume that they share in the vision that Roddenberry had for humanity’s future, at least in one aspect or another. Companies like Google are helping keep the Spirit of Trek alive and well by doing their part to move us in that technological direction.

Well, it’s about that time once again to wrap up this week’s column. Thank you for joining me on this journey to discover how the Spirit of Trek has started to permeate throughout our culture with the hope that one day, Gene Roddenberry’s vision for humanity’s future will become a reality. If you come across something that you believe embodies the Spirit of Trek on the Internet or within popular culture, please do not hesitate to share it with me. I may discuss it in a future article. Live long and Prosper.

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