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Friday, August 17, 2012

John has a l ...

The title of this post is how far I got just now, in typing into a Google search engine search field, before Google's predictive text algorithm hazarded a ranked set of likely completions to my search terms. First among them:

John has a long mustache.

Friends and neighbors, since junior high school I've been able to type consistently in excess of 100 words per minute with generally good accuracy. Between the time my right ring finger could hop up from the "L" key to the "O" key while typing the word "long," much less than a fraction of one second could have passed. Yet that fractional second, even with internet lag, was long enough for Google: Not only was "John has a long mustache" indeed what I had been in the process of typing (keyboarding?), but Google's first offered search result was also spot-on correct, just exactly what I'd been wanting to look up: It was about the movie I'm watching right now, which contains a scene in which the sentence "John has a long mustache" is very important.

Aren't there many, many other quotes, constructions, passages in English-to-French dictionaries, random works of fiction, or other likely sources of sentences which begin with "John has a," plus just the letter "L"? My fragmentary search term could have turned out to be "John has a leopard," or "John has a luxurious apartment," or "John has a lackadaisical attitude toward his blogging." So how did Google's algorithms rule those possibilities out and rank the correct one (about John's long mustache) as the most likely fit? All I can imagine is that on previous occasions when this same film has been shown on television, some measurable number of other geeks have googled on that same phrase. Still: This mimicking — of human reasoning, of a very perceptive and well-read expert on countless subjects, of mind reading — is very, very uncanny. Indeed, it is slightly disturbing. But damned impressive!

I was seized by an eerie sensation: I remember telling friends to try Google out, back in 1999, during the first dozen months or so after it launched. "They have found some new wrinkles that you can't get with other search engines," I told them. "It seems to be ... smarter, somehow, than the others. It doesn't just index."

Well, now it finishes my sentences for me, just as if Goggle and I are some sort of long-married old couple. It can correctly guess what movie I'm watching — even though there's more than one film that has used that same line, even though the line has independent historical significance in its own right. Of course, in that scenario, I'm already the stroke-impaired, senile numbskull compared to how quickly it intuits my intent from a handful of keystrokes and then leaps ahead of me.

Posted by Beldar at 05:06 AM in Film/TV/Stage, History, Web/Tech | Permalink


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(1) rp made the following comment | Aug 19, 2012 11:51:54 AM | Permalink

You need to get out more. Bing does the same thing.

(2) Beldar made the following comment | Aug 19, 2012 7:43:24 PM | Permalink

Why would you assume, rp, from the fact that I choose to use Google as my search engine of choice for most (but not all) inquiries, that I am therefore unaware of Bing or competing search engines?

I am confident that I already "get out" enough in this context, although that observation would surely be true of me if made in a great many other contexts. What you may have intended as a joke isn't funny, but it is mildly insulting (which I'll assume, this once, you didn't intend).

Bing is just fine, and in particular I like it better than Google for searching for images and videos. But it is still, relatively speaking, a newcomer to the scene, and it has always been, and generally remains, an imitator rather than an innovator — and that's not happenstance, but rather the natural consequence of an attempt by an extremely large and well-funded company, Microsoft, to play catch-up against a competitor that still defines the market, Google.

(3) Beldar made the following comment | Aug 20, 2012 12:31:39 AM | Permalink

To commenter "rp," on the occasion of your last comment having been deleted and your IP address banned:

I don't know, or care, if you're a Bing.com fanboy or a paid Microsoft employee (it could be utter coincidence that your IP address tracks to Kent, WA, a half-hour drive from the Microsoft campus in Redmond) or whatever. If you choose to read this post as being critical of Bing, which I didn't mention at all until you brought it up (and then what I said was mostly favorable, and all true), such is your choice, but it's a very silly choice.

In your comment that I just deleted, you found fault with my description of how I perceived Google in 1999 because I didn't mention Bing. But Bing was not around until a full decade later (2009). And it's absolutely true that in 1999, as I said in my post, Google was doing things that other search engines weren't, things that made it much more closely model artificial intelligence, things that made it different than a giant index mated with an adding machine (which is basically how Google's predecessors worked). That's basically why we don't have a verb called "alta-vistaing" someone. (I do admit that I kind of like the notion of "yahooing" someone, though; but spake otherwise, the market did.)

And you started off our discussion by immediately going ad hominem, focusing your fire not on the merits of anything either you or I might say, but on me, personally. In the comment I just deleted, you doubled-down on that by purporting to quote to me what you think I ought to have written instead. My response to that is: "Sod off."

This post was in the nature of a personal anecdote, in which I was musing about WW2, about movies, and the history of Google, and about its predictive text algorithm. I did not undertake any obligation to do a comparative review on other competing products. I was using Google, not Bing, when the circumstances giving rise to my impulse to write the post took place. And that was my choice — one I don't feel any need to justify to you or anyone, and about which I'm not going to be lectured on my own bandwidth.

Sitemeter includes among its stats for paid subscribers a breakout of how many referrals came from each different search engine. I get several hundred such visits each day, but each and every day, Google sends me more than ten for every one that Bing sends me. I don't think that's because Google likes my blog better than Bing does, I think that likely reflects the vastly larger share of search engine use that Google still commands. I'm perfectly happy, however, for Bing, or for anyone else, to continue to compete as effectively with Google as it's able, and for that competition to continue to push the entire industry to better performance.

Whatever your motivation is, you're not welcome here anymore. Your last comment was insulting and uncivil, even more explicitly so, despite your having been warned against that. I don't tolerate that kind of repeat offender on this blog. My blog, my rules, so: Go away.

(4) Greg Q made the following comment | Aug 23, 2012 4:00:54 PM | Permalink

Hi Beldar,

You type too fast. :-) With my slower typing, I only have to type "John has" before the rest shows up.

Modern life really is quite amazing. :-)

(5) Beldar made the following comment | Aug 23, 2012 9:29:21 PM | Permalink

Greg Q, a Facebook friend of mine asserted there that since and because of this post, the phrase "John has" is apparently now sufficiently associated with "John has a long moustache" that the letter "L" is no longer needed.

I think that's probably true. But — and I suspect this solipsism is justified by the technology — I have no reason to be sure that what he sees, or you see, from your respective computer screens corresponds to what I see, if indeed Google is personalizing our search rankings and predictive text auto-completions. It certainly does that with the advertisements it selects for each of us.

(6) Greg Q made the following comment | Aug 24, 2012 4:39:42 PM | Permalink


The day you mad the post, I got the full string w/ "John ha". Now it takes "John has". I almost never use Google for anything, so they're unlikely to have much search history to draw on for me. :-)

In any event, you're right it is an impressive "intuitive leap" on the part of the Google search engine. The next couple decades have to opportunity to be really fun.

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