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Google, not the state, is building the future

If the present situation continues, corporations will decide how to deploy tech

Farhad Manjoo 

Google Chief Executive Sundar Pichai has said the search company would henceforth be an ‘AI-first’ company. Photo: iSTOCK

One persistent criticism of is that it no longer works on big, world-changing ideas. Every few months, a dumb start-up will make the news — most recently the one selling a $700 juicer — and folks outside the will begin singing I-told-you-sos.

But don’t be fooled by expensive juice. The idea that no longer funds big things isn’t just wrong, but also obtuse and fairly dangerous. Look at the cars, the rockets, the internet-beaming balloons and gliders, the voice assistants, drones, augmented and virtual reality devices, and every permutation of artificial intelligence (AI) you’ve ever encountered in sci-fi. companies aren’t just funding big things — they are funding the biggest, most world-changing things. They are spending on ideas that, years from now, we may come to see as having altered life for much of the planet.

At the same time, the American government’s appetite for funding big things — for scientific research and out-of-this-world and programs — keeps falling, and it may decline further under President Donald Trump.

This sets up a looming complication: giants, not the government, are building the artificially intelligent future. And unless the government vastly increases how much it spends on research into such technologies, it is the corporations that will decide how to deploy them.

Consider On Wednesday, the internet search company kicked off its annual developer conference near its headquarters in Mountain View, California. The company showed off several advances to its voice-enabled assistant and its mobile operating system. Among other things, you can now point your phone at an object in the real world — a flower, a sign in another language, a marquee for a rock concert — and the phone will give you more information about what you’re looking at (for instance, a button to buy tickets for the concert).

Some of this was cool, but little was truly groundbreaking, which isn’t surprising: We’re in an awkward phase of the tech industry, one marked by incremental improvements to technologies that we think of as boring — and lots of exciting promises about far-off tech that isn’t quite ready for prime time.

The real advances at are in that second category. At last year’s show, Sundar Pichai, Google’s chief executive, inaugurated what he called a new era for The search company would henceforth be an “AI-first” company — that is, most of its advances would be driven by artificial intelligence techniques.

The would play a role in consumer products, like Google’s instant translator or its photo app, which can recognise uniquely human search terms (it can find pictures of “hugs,” for instance). But AI also informs Google’s more ambitious plans. The company is using AI to teach computers to understand language, to see and hear, to diagnose diseases, and even to create art.

© 2017 New York Times News Service