Google Predicting the Future?

Geeks among us will recognize the term “chaos theory”. It is a highly philisophical, and yet scientifically unproven, theory of physics that says, among other things, that there is a natural order to the universe that cannot be observed directly, but can be seen in patterns. Popularly known as the Butterfly Effect, it theorizes that though there appears a dissonance and disorder in nature, nature actually behaves in an orderly and predictable way. Examples of chaos can be seen in weather, the flow of currents and even the natural cycle of economic conditions. Though no two iterations of an event happen exactly as they happened before, there is a pattern that is distinguishable if charted or mapped.

Ike Pigott requested my input on a theory he floated last night on his blog. The theory is that Google, in their attempt to meet their stated mission of “organizing the world’s information”, is attempting to predict the future. He framed his argument around the dissolution of many Google services over the past week, in an effort to economically streamline their business and Steve Rubel’s prediction that their Google Reader product is next on the chopping block.

Ike’s argument was that, through Google’s monitoring and recording of key behavioral patterns – such as reading and sharing of stories, commenting, time of engagement, and subscriber base numbers – that Google is able to create a massive database over time that “learns” the patterns of human information engagement. With these patterns (and a nod to Chaos Theory), Google can accurately predict a large number of events, or cultural shifts before they come to be. Additionally, as the only owner of multiple copies of the internet in their massive server farms, Google positions itself to be the one and only benefactor of such information. It could be argued that “the Machine is among us” (in another nod to common science fiction themes),

It has long been my assertation that the tendency of the internet world to easily trust and adopt to Google efforts is a dangerous precedent to set. Increasingly, people rely on Google for mail, calendaring and even productivity. New bloggers tend to setup blogs on Google-owned Blogger and the saturation of video content is due, in no small part, to Youtube. Why? Because Google makes products that are easy and ease of use is more important than virtually any other factor that consumers might think of.

Without raising the alarm bells, folks should be cognizant about entrusting Google with all of their data. Personally, I use Gmail, FeedBurner, YouTube and other services, but the data is yours and should be diversified as much as possible.

Question of the Day: Is this theory of future prediction fact or fiction, good will or conspiracy? Isaac Asimov outlined the rules for robots in his book I, Robot:

  1. A robot may not injure a human being or, through inaction, allow a human being to come to harm.
  2. A robot must obey orders given to it by human beings, except where such orders would conflict with the First Law.
  3. A robot must protect its own existence as long as such protection does not conflict with the First or Second Law.

Food for thought.

Aaron Brazell

Aaron Brazell is a Baltimore, MD-based WordPress developer, a co-founder at WP Engine, WordPress core contributor and author. He wrote the book WordPress Bible and has been publishing on the web since 2000. You can follow him on Twitter, on his personal blog and view his photography at The Aperture Filter.

7 thoughts on “Google Predicting the Future?

  1. Kevin Kelly talks a bit about this in his answer to Edge.org’s question of what will change everything(?) : http://www.edge.org/q2009/q09_1.html#kelly

    Google has developed, in a sense, a sort of artificial intelligence, and is making it “close to ubiquitous.” Kelly’s point is that having truly ubiquitous AI will add an additional level of mind to the world, and improve our own ability to think, in part via this “extended mind.”

    That doesn’t directly respond to your point of Google’s being able to predict the future, although that is certainly good use of ai. It does help show though that massively parallel processing, with “googlebytes” of data, WILL transform our world in unseen ways. At some point, as in chaos theory, the benefits will cascade, much in the same way that a hurricane ultimately forms from the flapping of a butterfly’s wings on a distant continent.

    Thanks for the post!

  2. Aaron, thanks for continuing the discussion.

    You are wise to caution against individuals placing too much trust of their own data into “The Engine.” However, it’s not that Google can know so much about you — it knows it about US.

    Who wants to winnow down to individual profiles? The information there is boring and of limited value (unless you’re blackmailing.) Don’t look at drops of water, look at the pattern and the ripple of the movement. Those inform, and at a scale such that even those with no online presence are accounted for.

    Maybe “chaos theory” isn’t the best analogy, nor is it complexity. I’m a fan of both. I think the better descriptor of what is going on is “fuzzy logic.”

    Take massive computing power, and crunch it on comparing patterns in datasets. It doesn’t require a human until later, to start interpreting the relationship and the viability of connection versus coincidence. In other words, they don’t know what patterns they’ll be able to match initially. Might be Irish rugby scores for all we know.

    The ethical issue that emerges will happen whether you use Gmail or not: how long can a small cadre of idealists remain unjaded, while sitting on the most explosive dataset since “Let there be light?” Once you can predict the likelihood of certain events, do you risk trying to alter them? And if so, are we beholden to the world-shaping ideology of a small group of engineers who think they know better than we do?

    Welcome to the Machine. All hail the Engine.

  3. Interesting thoughts. But a conspiracy to predict the future to what end – grow rich from stock speculation (they’re already rich at the top – rich beyond what most of us would find to be an opulent lifestyle)? Grow in political influence to challenge the world order? Page and Brin don’t seem like those type of guys, nor do the C-levels there.

    So who is the conspiracy “against?”

    Maybe Dan Brown could write a novel about it…

  4. Thing is, we help Google position itself to be that one and only benefactor of such information because so many think it’s omniscient, almost like HAL, looking to it for all the answers to life’s questions. You suggest spreading your personal info across multiple sites, and I’d agree. I’d take it one step further and say people need to look to other sources for info beyond Google. (Another topic for another time perhaps, but it’s scary how many people also treat Wiki as if it’s the Bible.)

  5. The thing to remember about chaos theory is that it’s full name is Deterministic Chaos Theory, and it is used to describe systems which ought to be absolutely predictable but for some reason are not. Chaos theory says you can’t predict chaotic systems beyond a short horizon, except to say that that your system will likely stay within some ‘basin of attraction’, and that it’s possible for it to flip into a new basin but unless it’s been in that new basin before, you can’t be sure when, or what small event will flip it, or if the basin really exists. All the detailed data in the world won’t help you, if you haven’t been there before. Finally, chaos is destroyed by randomness. If it’s not deterministic, it can’t be chaotic, formally. There may be things Google can predict, using their collection of information, but the kinds of things and the range in time is limited.

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