In a rare dual interview, Larry Page and Sergey Brin reveal that a young Google could have sold out to Excite, and explain how computers will enable us all to work less
- theguardian.com, Monday 7 July 2014 14.00 BST
When Google’s founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, sat down for a rare frank and open chat with the veteran technology venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, they admitted, among other things, that Google is interested in healthcare but scared of its intense regulation.
Page and Brin displayed their quite different personalities: Brin the maverick and head of Google X – who attempted to kite-board his way to the interview – and Page the business-focused executive now CEO.
The dynamic duo have been together for 16 years, and described their relationship as a bit like an old married couple. “You don’t get agitated about one little thing or another,” said Brin. “We work through it.”
Google almost sold to Excite
Before the company had really started becoming the dominant search engine and the portal to the web, Google almost sold itself to a search engine company called Excite.
“We had developed this technology we called PageRank – sadly, not BrinRank,” said Brin. “By itself, it wasn’t really a complete search engine. What we had just searched titles of webpages and ranked them quite well.”
“We showed it to a bunch of the existing search companies back then. Some of you might remember them – Infoseek, Excite, Lycos. And probably, the greatest interest came from Excite,” said Brin explaining that, “in the end, I don’t think the management team there was quite as excited about it – no pun intended.”
While Page explained that the search companies at the time didn’t “believe in search” the way Google did, Brin also put it down to Excite’s company ethos and the way it treated the company’s founders.
“Do you remember the founders’ dungeon?” asked Brin. “Here’s these offices, so we go downstairs, and they locked away this one founder. I don’t remember which one it was. He’s in a little closet downstairs.
“I don’t know how long I would’ve stayed, to be honest.”
Spread betting, because not everything has to pay off
Google has often been accused of having too many irons in the fire. On the outside it is seen as a bit scattershot, its products covering everything from communications and search to health, robots, internet balloons and self-driving cars.
“I would always have this debate with Steve Jobs. He’d be like, ‘You guys are doing too much stuff.’ And I’d be like, ‘Yeah that’s true.’ And he was right, in some sense,” explained Page. “I think it sounds stupid if you have this big company, and you can only do five things.”
“We try to invest, at least, in the places where we see a good fit to our company. But that could be many, many bets, and only a few of them need to pay off,” explained Brin.
Head of Google X – Google’s semi-secret facility dedicated to making major technological advancements – Brin sees his role as making the “big bets” hoping that some of them pay off separate from Google’s core search and advertising business.
Self-driving cars could unlock cities
Google X’s most high-profile project of the last three months has been a new purpose-built prototype of its self-driving car. Brin hopes that it can be a “really dramatic change” society but only if we migrate away from car ownership.
“So much of our land in most cities, about 30% to 50% is parking, which is a tremendous waste. Also, the roads themselves, which are both congested and take a lot of space are just unpleasant,” explained Brin. “So with self-driving cars, you don’t really need much in the way of parking, because you don’t need one car per person. They just come and get you when you need them.”
Brin believes that self-driving cars could also more efficiently use the resources like roads that we already have – a particular problem in congested Britain.
“They can form trains. They can go at high speed, perhaps much higher than our highway speeds here. Fundamentally, they can just make much more efficient use of the space and therefore, people’s time. So I think that can be really transformative,” concluded Brin.
Health has potential but intense regulation is ‘just a painful business’
Google’s recent moves in heath, including Google Fit and a plethora of apps, have followed an increasing trend that has seen both large and small technology companies migrating towards the business of health and medicine.
The health market could be a larger business than both search and media – the healthcare industry in the US alone hit around $3 trillion in 2013. While Brin sees great potential in health, regulation is a massive barrier.
“Generally, health is just so heavily regulated. It’s just a painful business to be in,” Bring explained. “I think the regulatory burden in the US is so high that think it would dissuade a lot of entrepreneurs.”
Along with Google Fit, the search giant launched a company called Calico, an independent biotechnology research firm which focuses on health and longevity.
“I am really excited about the possibility of data also, to improve health,” said Page. “Imagine you had the ability to search people’s medical records in the US.”
“I imagine that would save 10,000 lives in the first year,” said Page warning that with current legislation “that’s almost impossible to do because of HIPPA [Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act]. I do worry that we regulate ourselves out of some really great possibilities that are certainly on the data-mining end.”
Computers are still pretty bad
Google started on the desktop with search but the company has rapidly expanded into other computing areas including mobile devices with Android smartphones and tablets, the new Android Wear smartwatches and Google Glass smartglasses.
For Brin and Page, computers and mobile devices just aren’t efficient uses of time at the moment:
“You’re just messing around. You’re scrolling on your touchscreen phone, and trying to find stuff. You’re in a car. It’s bouncy, and you can’t – it doesn’t really work,” said Page.
“I think the actual amount of knowledge you get out of your computer versus the amount of time you spend with it is still pretty bad. So I think our job is to solve that, and most of the things we’re doing make sense in that context,” explained Brin.
Google sees search and intelligent information delivery as the key to changing that, getting to the information you need faster and more efficiently though machine understanding search topics and the answers to questions.
Google’s efforts go beyond search, however, and towards providing users with information at the right time without them having to ask for it.
“If you look at things like Google Now also. Maybe you want to just have [a question] answered for you before you ask it,” said Page explaining that the “I’m feeling lucky” button was originally meant to fill that role, but it was “kind of an obtuse naming of the feature”.
AI and fully reasoning AI – Brain project
One of the advances that has powered intelligent information delivery for Google has been artificial intelligence (AI). The company hit the headlines at the beginning of the year with the acquisition of a UK AI powerhouse called Deep Mind lead by former child chess prodigy and Theme Park game programmer Demis Hassabis.
Google has several projects within AI ongoing beyond its core search product, explained Brin:
“There’s, for example, the brain project, which is really machine-learning focused. It takes input, such as vision. In fact, we’ve been using it for the self-driving cars.”
“And then, there’s more general intelligence, like the DeepMind acquisition that – in theory – we hope will one day be fully reasoning AI,” explained Brin saying that creating true artificial intelligence as most people understand it – a machine that can learn and think for itself – is the goal.
“Obviously, computer scientists have been promising that for decades and not at all delivered. So I think it would be foolish of us to make prognoses about that,” said Brin. “[But] you should presume that someday, we will be able to make machines that can reason, think and do things better than we can.”
Robots taking over society ‘90% of people used to be farmers’
Google is acutely aware that with the rise of intelligent robots jobs could be at risk, as machines could replace humans in more than just manufacturing industries.
“I do think that a lot of the things that people do have been, over the past century, replaced by machines and will continue to be,” said Brin with Page adding, “90% of people used to be farmers. So it’s happened before. It’s not surprising.”
In Page’s view robots and machines should be able to provide a “time of abundance” where everyone’s basic needs could be met relatively easily.
“I was talking to Richard Branson about this. They don’t have enough jobs in the UK. He’s been trying to get people to hire two part-time people instead of one full-time. So at least, the young people can have a half-time job rather than no job,” said Page.
With a more productive or efficient society aided by machines you could “just reduce work time,” according to Page, who explained that he had floated the idea of an extra week or two of holiday or a four-day work week frequently in the past with universal approval.
“Most people like working, but they’d also like to have more time with their family or to pursue their own interests,” said Page saying that by reducing the workweek you could spread jobs across more people.