With the news of Google's plan to release a slew of innovative technologies, we take a close look at the company's quest for happiness through computer intelligence. 

 

"The ultimate search engine would understand everything in the world," Google's Larry Page said at a conference in London in 2006. At the company's annual I/O developer's conference this week in San Francisco, Google announced a number of new services that are bringing the company ever closer toward that goal of perfect understanding.

The biggest announcement was Google Now, the company's virtual assistant, coming to desktop computers via Chrome. The assistant program is activated when the user says "OK Google" and asks a question. Now will answer using the company's massive "knowledge graph" to present what the program recognizes as the most relevant information. 

 

There's a huge paradox at the center of Google's new mission that no one at the company seems to have a good answer to: if it builds an engine that understands everything, why would anyone ever need to search for an answer?

 

In an on-stage demo, Google's Johanna Wright demonstrated Now's speed and accuracy, quickly pulling up a list of activities when she asked what there is to do in Santa Cruz. More impressively, the program was able to understand and respond to the semantically ambiguous follow-up question about how far it is from "here" to "there." Using Google's positioning software Now figured "here" was the conference room in downtown San Francisco where Wright was connected to the Internet, and assumed "there" had something to do with the previous search queries about things to do in Santa Cruz. So, in about a second, Now produced driving directions and an estimated transit time based on current traffic conditions.

Google's working to make the specific device as unimportant as possible to Now. This, of course, depends on all of the information, habits, and predictive preferences stored for users in their unified Google Plus accounts, which the company's Amit Singhai refers to as a "social spine."

Google has wanted to build a business around the idea of a magically sentient helper that knows everything for years, with both Page and Sergey Brin talking about eventually being able to use the company's search tools to alter and improve one's brain.

"For example you think about something," Page described in a 2004 interview with Retuers, "and your cell phone could whisper the answer into your ear." While Google has yet to unlock cell phone telepathy, the company is making dizzying progress on its decade-long goal.

As is often the case with technological advance, the excitement of trying to do something overwhelms clear thought about why that thing is necessary. There's a huge paradox at the center of Google's new mission that no one at the company seems to have a good answer to: If it builds an engine that understands everything, why would anyone ever need to search for an answer? Individual users might not know a certain fact or date, but if access to all understanding is equally available, what would the incentive to seek out an answer be?

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