Google's Singular Silence on Kurzweil

Carlton Wilkinson - The Street  DEC 20, 2012 2:27 PM

The company has little to say about this important hire. Maybe it has good reason.

 


Inventor and futurist Ray Kurzweil has joined Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) as director of engineering this week.

Kurzweil made the announcement himself last Friday on his website, noting he'll be working on the biggest problems in computing and pointing particularly to artificial intelligence.

TheStreet.com's Dana Blankenhorn noted the move Monday in his article "We're All Futurists Now," correctly pointing out that innovation has to sync with market appetite or it fails to be adopted. He concludes that with Internet information at our fingertips, nobody out there has any more advantage to see around that particular corner -- the intersection of innovation and market potential -- than anyone else.

Google's only comment on the hire that I know of comes in the form of a short note to the MIT Technology Review:

"Ray's contributions to science and technology, through research in character and speech recognition and machine learning, have led to technological achievements that have had an enormous impact on society -- such as the Kurzweil Reading Machine, used by Stevie Wonder and others to have print read aloud. We appreciate his ambitious, long-term thinking, and we think his approach to problem-solving will be incredibly valuable to projects we're working on at Google."

A week after Kurzweil's posting, and four days after he began full-time work at the company, no other press release or official comment has emerged.

Kurzweil is famous for many things, including his work in character and speech recognition. His name was also firmly attached to the first digital musical instruments capable of modeling grand piano sounds with life-like accuracy.

Importantly, he has also been highly visible in support of the notion of a coming "singularity," a moment when computer thinking will exceed human thinking. Mere humans can't predict technological innovation beyond that transition since it would proceed at incomprehensible speeds and with incomprehensible logic and precision.

This is the point at which machines take over, an event horizon beyond which our future is completely dark to us.

In 2005, Kurzweil outlined this idea in his book, The Singularity Is Near, which gained popular attention (and won him an appearance on Jon Stewart's The Daily Show). He also co-founded Singularity University with the goal of leveraging "exponentially growing technologies to solve humanity's grand challenges."

Why would Google be mum on such a high-profile hire?

There are a few good reasons, but I think they all boil down to one: The company wants to avoid misguided or inflated expectations and media chatter speculating about any coming potentially disruptive technology. No matter what, it wants to avoid looking foolish.

In this, it probably learned its lesson from inventor Dean Kamen. In 2001, Kamen unwittingly unleashed a tidal wave of media hype prior to his unveiling of what became the Segway, an elegant, simple, two-wheeled personal transport. The buildup was huge and the letdown made the actual device appear somewhat foolish and left sales on the launch pad for months afterward. Let's take this apart and look at some of the possible reasons for Google not making an announcement:

1. Perhaps Kurzweil's hiring is largely a brand acquisition. The inventor's specialties in "machine learning and language processing" are important technological concerns the company has. It's original search engine was an improved algorithm enabling people to more easily find what they were looking for. Every Google product, including Maps and the self-driving car, are stamped with this ease of human-machine interaction.

My favorite example of this is the Google Doodles. They can be incredibly complex, but the presentation is so clear that we learn how to use them simply by playing with them. They're the perfect Google brand icon: a little machine that acts like it knows us.

In this scenario, Kurzweil is supportive, but more of an honorary engineer, an inspiration to the researchers, someone who might toss out an idea or two to fire them up but is largely out of the picture when it gets down to marketable projects.

2. Kurzweil's name is one of those that is widely known in certain circles -- and those circles can be pretty disparate -- but is still not a household word by any stretch. It could well be that Google just doesn't see this hire as being of interest to investors or to the public.

I can't discount this possibility completely, but on its own, I find it hard to believe. New hires are usually touted to the media as the best possible move for any company. Even if we had never heard of Ray Kurzweil, Google should be singing the praises of its new Director of Engineering from the rooftops.

3. Kurzweil's association with the topic of "singularity" could turn into bad publicity for the company. It is regarded at worst as lunatic fringe by some, even within the tech community. Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) co-founder Paul Allen is one who has been highly critical of the idea.

4. There is the final possibility that something bigger is indeed going on, a project or two in the works that Kurzweil help bring to fruition. Let's say there's a good chance it could materialize in six months but an equally good chance it will take six years, or won't materialize at all.

If I were Google, that would reason enough to keep my mouth shut now.

My best guess here is some combination of all four. The company is betting that Kurzweil's idiosyncratic personality and less-than-perfect name recognition will permit it to say as little as possible, thus avoiding fueling speculation about projects that may not pan out while also skating gently past any media volatility stemming from his involvement in the singularity movement.

At the same time, regardless of his level of direct involvement, having him there will undoubtedly spur the engineers in Google's labs to do their best work.