Amit Singhal on the Past, Present, and Future of Search

Josh Wright —  22 February 2012

Pretty interesting interview with Google’s Senior VP Amit Singhal on where search technology is headed.  In the article, Singhal describes the shift from a content-based, keyword index  to incorporating links and other signals to improve query results.  The most interesting part of the interview is about what is next.

Google now wants to transform words that appear on a page into entities that mean something and have related attributes. It’s what the human brain does naturally, but for computers, it’s known as Artificial Intelligence.

It’s a challenging task, but the work has already begun. Google is “building a huge, in-house understanding of what an entity is and a repository of what entities are in the world and what should you know about those entities,” said Singhal.

In 2010, Google purchased Freebase, a community-built knowledge base packed with some 12 million canonical entities. Twelve million is a good start, but Google has, according to Singhal, invested dramatically to “build a huge knowledge graph of interconnected entities and their attributes.”

The transition from a word-based index to this knowledge graph is a fundamental shift that will radically increase power and complexity. Singhal explained that the word index is essentially like the index you find at the back of a book: “A knowledge base is huge compared to the word index and far more refined or advanced.”

Right now Google is, Singhal told me, building the infrastructure for the more algorithmically complex search of tomorrow, and that task, of course, does include more computers. All those computers are helping the search giant build out the knowledge graph, which now has “north of 200 million entities.” What can you do with that kind of knowledge graph (or base)?

Initially, you just take baby steps. Although evidence of this AI-like intelligence is beginning to show up in Google Search results, most people probably haven’t even noticed it.

For example:

Type “Monet” into Google Search, for instance, and, along with the standard results, you’ll find a small area at the bottom: “Artwork Searches for Claude Monet.” In it are thumbnail results of the top five or six works by the master. Singhal says this is an indication that Google search is beginning to understand that Monet is a painter and that the most important thing about an artist is his greatest works.

When I note that this does not seem wildly different or more exceptional that the traditional results above, Singhal cautioned me that judging the knowledge graph’s power on this would be like judging an artist on work he did as a 12- or 24-month-old.

Check out the whole article.  Counterfactuals are always difficult — but its difficult to imagine a basis for arguments that the evolution of search technology would have been — or will be — better for consumers with government regulation.