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Google's Singular Silence on Kurzweil

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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.

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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.

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