TechWeekEurope’s Crystal Balls: Who Is Google’s Next Superstar Director?

Peter Judge

With Vint Cerf and Ray Kurzweil on board, will Google hire more celebrity directors? Peter Judge wonders if it has a bigger plan

When you virtually own vast portions of the IT industry and have more money than you can feasibly spend, who would you have on your team? In Google‘s case, you snap up all the IT industry legends you possibly can.

Vint Cerf , who invented the Internet (more or less) by co-inventing the TCP/IP protocols on which it runs, is vice president, and chief Internet evangelist. Last week, the company added Ray Kurzweil, pioneer of text-to-speech and synthesizers, as a director of engineering working on machine learning and language.

Google snaps up the talent

But how much of an impact will these appointments actually have? Cerf is a great figurehead, and he thinks well about the needs and benefits of the Internet. However, his independence is seriously compromised by his position at Google. Last year, on a visit to London, he surprised TechWeekEurope by telling us he was “surprised” about the furore around Google’s privacy policies.

Really? Google’s whole business model is to do with using our data – the searches we enter and the things we do – for profit. We can all decide whether that is a deal we want to make, and reach conclusions about whether Google treats us better than others, such as Facebook. But we don’t really believe that one of the smartest brains in communications could have been completely unaware that some people might object to Google’s privacy changes.

Cerf’s role at Google has reduced his standing as a figurehead for the Internet. That role now firmly belongs to Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the Web’s hypertext transfer protocol (HTTP) who has rejected all approaches for a role like Cerf’s (I would bet money that Google approached him) and combines academic posts with roles in bodies like the World Wide Web Consortium.

Bring on the huckster

Ray kurzweil google chief engineer - photo by Michael Lutch, Kurzweil TechnologiesKurzweil is a different matter. His image is controversial. His backing of science-fictional concepts such as the “singularity” and “transhumanism” has been very controversial. Science fiction authors such as Neal Stephenson and Bruce Sterling have warned it is rather dangerous to treat science fiction as reality. Indeed, Kurzweil’s other roles include the promotion, with his doctor friend Terry Grossman, of food supplements which look like snake oil to us.

Kurzweil is described by some as a “huckster”, and his arrival at Google looks like a big win for his reputation.  His predictions have often been criticised and once he cited Google as a get-out clause. When a 20 Petaflop computer failed to emerge by 2009 as he had predicted, he said that Google’s cloud servers functioned as a giant computer, so we’d sort of achieved what he predicted.

We should be aware that neither Cerf nor Kurzweil will wield real power at Google. They don’t appear on the Google Management Team page, which is (unless I missed one) a celebrity free zone.

Indeed, the role of  vice president of engineering on that page goes to Vic Gundotra, a solidly-performing ex-Microsoft guy, whose chief claim to fame, according to his Wikipedia page, is a starring role in a Mercedes commercial.

What if…?

But what if Kurzweil has a real job to do, and the singularity is happening right now? Human-built AIs would start to take real roles in society – and IBM’s Watson supercomputer would get a seat on the IBM board.

How would Google respond, with Kurzweil beavering away in the lab? I’d like to think that it wouldn’t come back with a me-too AI supercomputer, but would tap into Kurzweil’s transhumanist ideas. How about using DNA and digital records to re-create someone whose role in the IT industry was tragically cut short, and who could top anyone else’s celebrity vice president?

How about an AI simulation of the father of computing – Alan Turing?   Now, he would be a truly great Google vice president.

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