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Google turns 25, with an uncertain future as AI looms : NPR

As the company turns 25, many are wondering what the future holds.

Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

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Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

As the company turns 25, many are wondering what the future holds.

Alain Jocard/AFP via Getty Images

Google helped shape the internet. Now, artificial intelligence threatens to change everything.

What is it? Arguably the most successful search engine of all time, which turns 25 this week.

  • Started in 1999 by two Stanford PhD students, Sergey Brin and Larry Page, their objective, as stated by Page in a 2003 Fresh Air interview, was pretty simple: “We want to provide information to people. That’s what we do. And so we try to err on that side whenever we can. And I think this will be a very interesting issue for the world going forward.”
  • Of course, it has expanded into an entire internet ecosystem for users; there’s the Google Workspace, Google Translate, YouTube (acquired by Google in 2006), Gmail, Google phones, and so much more, all tracing back to those early days of the DIY dorm room operation.

What’s the big deal? Google’s domination of the internet is complicated.

  • Clickbait, targeted ads and search engine optimization muddied the waters of the goal to just “provide information to people.” And then there’s the advertising.
  • Nilay Patel is the editor-in-chief of The Verge and says the founders of Google didn’t know what business they were in at first. Patel told NPR: “At the very beginning of Google, they were both fairly opposed to advertising. And they knew that advertising would be a way to make money, but they thought it would corrupt the company inevitably. And here we are 25 years later, and Google is a dominant purveyor of advertising online. I think it’s important for us to all take a minute and look at it and say, ‘OK, our information architecture is dominated by people searching for things, and those search results are very much influenced by the needs of Google.'”
  • And now artificial intelligence could usher in a new era of opportunity — and change — for the search giant.

What does the future hold?

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What are people saying? All Things Considered’s Ari Shapiro spoke with Patel about Google’s history, and how emerging technology could impact its future.

Here’s Patel on the possible role of AI:

They are there to provide useful information, that’s what Google has always thought of itself as. Initially, the way they provided it was by looking at the entire internet and sending you to pages on the internet that contained that information. Over time, Google has bought a lot of companies that now own and control that information, and they favor their own companies over competitors who might have better information or more useful services.

They also just answer the questions directly now. There was a cottage industry of websites telling people what time the Super Bowl was. That was pretty ridiculous, but they were all competing for Google search traffic for that query on the day of the Super Bowl. Now, Google just tells you the answer to that question.

That’s probably fine. But you add in something like AI or Google’s search generative experience, which needs to ingest a massive amount of data to then just provide the answers contained on the pages that it ingested, and no one gets any traffic from that. Nobody gets any value from that. And you can see why a bunch of companies that have organized themselves around Google traffic are freaking out, because they have just provided all of their work to Google for free, and they’re not really going to get anything else out of it.

Want to listen to the full conversation between Ari and Nilay? Click the ‘play’ button at the top of this page.

And here’s Patel on whether AI integration could mean an improvement for users:

I think that is one of the questions of the AI age. If no one wants to share their new information with Google, what will it train the AI on? If some set of big publishers say, ‘Look, our Google traffic is going down, we’re going to stop letting Google crawl our web pages and stop feeding new information into the Google search machine,’ where’s the AI going to get new, reliable information from? It can’t scrape Instagram. They can’t scrape TikTok. Those companies are closed off to Google.

I had asked Google’s CEO, Sundar Pichai, about this, and his answer was that they have YouTube — that YouTube exists — and people will still make YouTube videos. And I think that answer is fundamentally extremely revealing.

Google knows that a new creator online is not going to start a web page the way that I started a web page when I was a young person who wanted to make things on the internet. They’re going to start a TikTok channel or a YouTube channel. So if the web slowly dies because Google and AI are sucking the value out of it without creating any incentives to create new things, I don’t know where that leaves any of us, really.

So, what now?

  • Alongside the philosophical questions, there are very real and imminent challenges to Google happening now.
  • Next Tuesday, the Justice Department’s antitrust trial against Google is slated to begin. The DOJ and dozens of states are attacking business agreements that have made Google the default search engine on many phones, web browsers and smart speakers.
  • Google has called the lawsuit “deeply flawed,” saying in a statement in 2020: “People use Google because they choose to, not because they’re forced to, or because they can’t find alternatives. This lawsuit would do nothing to help consumers. To the contrary, it would artificially prop up lower-quality search alternatives, raise phone prices, and make it harder for people to get the search services they want to use.”
  • And finally, remember this movie?

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