March 20, 2019

Amazon Alexa and the Search for the Perfect Answer

“IF YOU HAD visited the Cambridge University Library in the late 1990s, you might have observed a skinny young man, his face illuminated by the glow of a laptop screen, camping out in the stacks. William Tunstall-­Pedoe had wrapped up his studies in computer science several years earlier, but he still relished the musty aroma of old paper, the feeling of books pressing in from every side. The library received a copy of nearly everything published in the United Kingdom, and the sheer volume of information—5 million books and 1.2 million periodicals—inspired him.

IT WAS AROUND this time, of course, that another vast repository of knowledge—the internet—was taking shape. Google, with its famous mission statement “to organize the world’s information and make it universally accessible and useful,” was proudly stepping into its role as librarian to the planet. But as much as Tunstall-­Pedoe adored lingering in the stacks, he felt that computers shouldn’t require people to laboriously track down information the way that libraries did. Yes, there was great pleasure to be had in browsing through search results, stumbling upon new sources, and discovering adjacent facts. But what most users really wanted was answers, not the thrill of a hunt.

As tools for achieving this end, search engines were almost as cumbersome as their book-stuffed predecessors. First, you had to think of just the right keywords. From the long list of links that Google or Yahoo produced, you had to guess which one was best. Then you had to click on it, go to a web page, and hope that it contained the information you sought. Tunstall-­Pedoe thought the technology should work more like the ship’s computer on Star Trek: Ask a question in everyday language, get an “instant, perfect answer.” Search engines as helpful librarians, he believed, must eventually yield to AIs as omniscient oracles.”

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