Saturday, February 10, 2007

Beating Google... and illiteracy

In the space of a few years, the Google search engine has become a fabulous phenomenon, enabling us to find practically anything on the net. Personally, when somebody asks me for my Internet coordinates, I've got into the habit of replying: "Google William Skyvington between quotes." That way, I can be sure they'll find me. But it's not the only computer tool that I use daily. Wikipedia is already amazing, and it seems to be growing exponentially. Then there's the splendid online English dictionary on the Macintosh. Once upon a time, not so long ago, a private researcher/writer would have forked out much money to purchase paper dictionaries and encyclopedias of a far less efficient nature than the services rendered by Google, Wikipedia and the dictionary. Besides, today, the above-mentioned services might be thought of simply as the cherries on the icing of the personal computer cake. I say to myself constantly that I'm living in a truly fantastic age...

There's talk on the net news about a research firm named Powerset that would like to upstage Google by means of a search engine that accepts queries in natural language (ordinary English, for instance), such as: "If I asked you to take me to your leader, where would you lead me?" [That's a trivial example I've just dreamed up.] This is a research domain that enthralled me a quarter of a century ago, when I wrote an essay (in French) on artificial intelligence titled Machina Sapiens. Since then, like everybody else, I've cooled down considerably as far as dreams of English-speaking computers are concerned. It's not a matter of computers not being smart enough to speak English. On the contrary, machines are smart enough today not to need to speak English.. which is a quite different kettle of fact-finding fish. For example, a polite ornithologist no longer needs to ask:
"Dear computer, please be so kind as to point me in the direction of information of a general nature concerning the interesting subject of the birds commonly described as robin redbreasts." A couple of Google keywords do the job perfectly: "robin redbreasts".

Globally, I don't know what this means. Kids are already conversing telephonically in abbreviated keywords through text messages. Is Google going to lead them even further away from the great cultural traditions of linguistics and literature? No, computers have never made anybody illiterate... but kids attain unaided that ignoble end when they choose to stop thinking. And that's the problem, not computers.

Truly, I don't know what it takes to persuade kids to think. I can only speak for myself. For me, it was my grandparents, my parents and—to a certain extent—the place where I grew up, named Grafton. But I'm aware that this is in no ways an answer to the general question.

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