May 16, 2013 12:08 am

Google chief touts utopian ambitions

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Google I/O is the search company’s annual opportunity to flaunt its scale and ambitions.

While last year its sci-fi headset Google Glass took centre stage at the San Francisco event, this year’s attempt to bring forward the future included a voice-activated search engine that can understand pronouns and other nuances of natural human speech.

Alongside an array of improvements to its media store, social network and maps, Google executives showcased new search tools that aim to “answer, converse and anticipate” their users’ needs.

“The perfect search engine is the Star Trek computer,” said Larry Page, Google’s chief executive, who answered questions from the audience for half an hour, despite detailing problems with his vocal cords earlier this week.

The voice-search service looks like a bid to leap further ahead of Apple’s virtual assistant, Siri. But Mr Page said he didn’t see Google’s innovations in quite such competitive terms, espousing a vision for a more co-operative technology industry.

“In every story I read about Google, it’s about us versus some other company or some stupid thing,” he said. “I don’t find that very interesting. We should be building great things that don’t exist. Being negative is not how we make progress.”

Alongside other problems he sees as holding back innovation, such as the tech industry’s gender imbalance and the need for more science and engineering graduates, Mr Page criticised the likes of Microsoft and Oracle for putting financial gain ahead of what he styled as Google’s more utopian ambitions.

“We need inter-operation [things working with each other], not people milking off one company for their own benefit,” he said in response to a question about web standards. “We certainly struggle with people like Microsoft.”

But Mr Page raised eyebrows when answering a question about how to overcome this “negativity”.

“There are many exciting things you can’t do because they are illegal and not allowed by regulation,” he said. “That makes sense – we don’t want the world to change too fast.”

Technologists should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out the effect on society and people without having to deploy it on the whole world

- Larry Page, Google chief executive

Nonetheless, Mr Page said he wished there was a “small part of the world” where such laws did not apply, akin to the anarchic Burning Man festival, held in the Nevada desert every August.

“Technologists should have some safe places where we can try out some new things and figure out the effect on society and people without having to deploy it on the whole world,” he said, citing the limited progress of Google Health as an area where regulations constrained his ambitions.

“In my long-term world view, hopefully our software understands deeply what you are knowledgeable about and what you’re not, and how to organise the world so the world can solve important problems,” he said. “People are starving in the world because we are not organised enough to solve that problem.”

For now, however, Google is focusing its engineers on more quotidian challenges. One new feature of Google+ helps people to organise their digital photos, for instance by scanning for the faces of a user’s family members and automatically prioritising them in an album.

Although Mr Page might not like the competitive comparison, Apple and Facebook rolled out similar face-recognition technology almost two years ago.

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