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Golem, the original android.

Triumph of the Robots

When Google tweaks its search rankings, whole economies tremble in fear

By Dan Pulcrano

THE ROBOT TAKEOVER of our planet, I'm sorry to say, has been much less dramatic than advertised. While it may be overly optimistic to expect the real-life version to live up to a Matrix sequel, the culmination of a half-century of science fiction should have at least merited a day or two of live CNN coverage, perhaps with a silver-suited, death-ray-wielding Gort trundling into Washington, D.C., to deliver an antiwar ultimatum to President Bush, as in the 1951 thriller, The Day the Earth Stood Still.

For anyone who has grown up reading Asimov, Clarke or Gibson, or watched HAL, C-3P0 or RoboCop on the silver screen, this is all really disappointing. And while we cannot totally rule out the possibility that Al Gore and the present governor of California are androids, the truth of the matter is that no one really expected evil to be quite this banal.

Instead, we have self-replicating viruses and annoying paper clips waving to us from the corners of plasma monitors. These insidious little scraps of computer code plan our travel itineraries, prioritize our news and spam us with Levitra offers.

The mother of all bots, of course, is Googlebot, a crawler that is better educated than any human because, at last count, it reads more than 3.3 billion webpages a month. The source on that, of course, is the bot itself, since no human can count that high. Would a robot lie?

At this point, it's too rich to care. The robot's controller, Mountain View-based Google Inc., has a value, according to the business press, of $20 billion, give or take $5 billion. Its expected initial public offering this spring will make the IPOs of Netscape, Yahoo, Amazon and eBay look quaint. Those four offerings combined are equivalent to a rounding error for the Google IPO's cash proceeds, which will be bigger than the gross domestic products of Fiji, Rwanda, Eritrea, Mongolia, Belize and 40 other countries.

The $2 billion it will plunk in the bank, and the local deca- and centi-millionaires and billionaires the Google IPO will produce, should inject some Red Bull into the Silicon Valley economy.

Bigger Than Jesus

New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman was not the first to suggest, in 2003, that Google is God--an all-knowing, ubiquitous and all-powerful force. Let me be the first to submit that Google is Jesus as well, being sent to earth not only as Savior of the technology industry but for the Resurrection of the American and global economies as well.

Look, the press will point out, it's the fastest creation of wealth anywhere on the planet in the entire history of humanity. It has made Ozymandius, Louis XIV and the Internet bubble look like warm-up stretches. The era of endless possibilities is back!

That will seal our robot dependency. Personally, I might as well throw up the white flag and declare that, yes, I am a robo-dependent, and I am powerless over this addiction. Do you think I would write factoid-dense paragraphs like the last three without a Google-bookmarked browser open at all times?

There are other signs we are moving toward a robot-dependent economy. This became apparent on or about the night of Nov. 15, when the Ph.D.s over at Google Inc. installed a new filter that rejiggered its PageRank algorithm without notice, affecting the order in which results for key search terms are displayed.

A whole class of small entrepreneurs had built comfortable businesses based on their high Google positions for terms like "pet urns" or "spinning hubcaps," when the calamitous event known in the industry as "Florida" occurred. The switch sent some highly ranked sites free-falling to 300th position--or worse. Ostensibly undertaken to improve the quality of search engine results by penalizing over-optimized content-thin sites (some critics think it was designed to force etailers to buy paid positions as part of Google's pre-IPO revenue-growth strategy), it was a cruel holiday season lump of coal for many small-timers who had built livelihoods on what they believed was a stable foundation.

The chorus of criticism that greeted a simple change to a mathematical formula provided convincing evidence of the centrality of infobots in a new microeconomy. An entire business ecosystem had bred itself on the search engine's fringes. Google now has the economic power once reserved for Nile floods and typhoons.

The rapid ascent of invisible robots is a unforeseen twist in the sci-fi playbook. The theme of intelligent machines achieving tyrannical domination over human beings has cropped up in numerous screenplays, though their exercise of power was never this elegant and subtle. A Star Wars laser shootout provides much better visuals. These guys just kind of snuck up on us.

And, while we knew that assembly-line labor would be replaced by robotic assemblers with welding torches, smug information workers like, ahem, newspaper editors will not be spared as the robot invasion proceeds.

It turns out that Google News does a pretty good job of sifting, ranking and organizing a mass of information larger than any carbon-based brain could process. This will no doubt have unintended social consequences. Just as program trading crashed the stock market, robotized news filtering will one day change a government or keep one in power, or cost some lives. Chinese government doesn't want critical news coverage? Fine, we'll just filter it out.

Message of the Golem

The current generation of information bots is likely the Model T Ford version of what lies ahead. Robots will become our personal information gatekeepers, provide content-based spam filtering, answer our mail and determine who gets through to us on the phone. There will no doubt be false positives that block access to legitimate callers or correspondents, giving the robots even greater influence over the quality and content of our very lives.

Eventually, robots will begin to route our physical movements, providing Homeland Security border services, examining our biometrics as we enter buildings, guiding our vehicles on the freeways and braking at stop signs.

In a particular testament to the Bush era, we'll likely perfect the killing bots before we have ones that wash dishes, mow lawns, mix martinis or pleasure us. Though technology has not yet produced a robot that can hunt down, recognize and take out Osama bin Laden, local engineers at SRI have developed Centibots to survey, photograph and map conflict zones. The little red-wheeled vehicles, which look like toy trucks outfitted with webcams, were developed on behalf of the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA).

Technology usually advances ahead of the social wisdom to control it, and benefits arrive in tandem with risks, from Prometheus' taming of the fire god to the exploitation of nuclear energy.

Prometheus was the inspiration for Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, about the robot that got away, just as some early robot science fiction drew from the legend of the golem, a clay figurine that came to life in 1580, the creation of Rabbi Judah Low bin Bezulel of Prague. While the golem proved useful in fending off enemies, the good rabbi was careful to give his clay man a rest at night and each Sabbath by slipping a piece of paper in its mouth. When the golem developed a soul and the rabbi feared that it had grown too powerful, he rendered it lifeless and left it undisturbed in an attic, where centuries later, the story goes, its imprint struck fear in the hearts of invading Germans.

The intersection of the next generation of technology with global warfare and accelerating economic forces carries a new set of risks. We'll have to know when to put the paper in the golem's mouth and return it to the attic from time to time.


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From the January 8-14, 2004 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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