Google 2012: The Machines Are Getting Smarter

Google was full of surprises in 2012. It outdid Apple easily in mobile OS features. It rolled out a whole line of Nexus Android devices that are undeniably top notch. And it launched the Knowledge Graph, a watershed moment between the keyword-searching past of the Web and a future Web that understands whole concepts.

2012 was also the year that Google unified its offerings under a single privacy policy, a move that freaked out lots of people, but which was totally rational from Google's perspective. If we're going to have a data-driven future offering pervasive, free technologies in exchange for better targeting of advertisements, we'll have to accept that companies like Google have an eerily accurate, real-time profile of us.

As if to hammer that point home, Google hired futurist and Singularitarian Ray Kurzweil right before the Holiday break. Looking back at 2012, it looks like Google's brave new world is almost upon us.

Knowledge Graph: Search The World

The most important Google story this year was the launch of the Knowledge Graph. This marked the shift from a first-generation Google that merely indexed the words and metadata of the Web to a next-generation Google that recognizes discrete things and the relationships between them.

Now, when you search Google for certain kinds of things, you get an answer or an explanation in return, rather than a link to a Web page containing the answer. That's made possible by Google's new semantic intelligence. Google learned how to learn from the Web and its vast oceans of linked information, but now it's figuring out how to put the information itself to work for its users.

Web pages are a part of it. People are also a part of it, so Google built Google+ to get people on the Web to identify themselves, each other and their relationships. Maps are also a part of it, so Google can understand questions about location. The Web used to be an index of pages, but now it just looks like the world.

Google doesn't mince words about wanting to build the Star Trek computer - you know, one that you can talk to - and the Knowledge Graph is the most important component of that computer's mind.

Android: Google's Cyborg Army

What's always been clear about Android is that Google wants everyone to have a mobile device at all costs. By giving away the operating system, Android has taken over the market in terms of raw numbers.

But it hasn't always been clear whether Google cares that everyone has a great mobile experience. That finally came into focus in 2012. The Android 4.1 and 4.2 updates made the mobile operating system more powerful in some ways, cleaner and simpler in others. The pure Google mobile experience, for those without third-party cruft piled on top of their Android devices by device manufacturers, is now a world-class experience.

The new flagship Nexus devices are among the finest mobile computers on the market. The Nexus 4 is a hit phone, despite its lack of LTE connectivity, because it hits such a sweet spot of power and price. The Nexus 7 tablet is inexpensive and solid enough to inspire confidence - and powerful enough to keep around all day. The Nexus 10 is the only non-Apple device as good as an iPad, period. Where the iPad is refined and precious, the Nexus 10 is durable and hardy. It's purely a matter of preference.

Even more amazingly, Google managed to out-design Apple on Apple's own platform this year. Its updated Search app adds Knowledge Graph answers that blow Siri away. And the new apps for YouTube, Gmail, and especially Maps have heavy Google users on iOS breathing sighs of relief.

For Google, the point is to get as many people as possible using Google out in the world, whether on Google's own operating system or not.

Google's Nervous System

The changes in search and mobile are just the consumer-facing ones, but that means more at Google than it does at other companies. Google is all about building a statistically significant testbed for as many large-scale experiments as it can. The more aspects of our lives Google is a part of, the more it can learn about us and our world. The consumer stuff Google does are like the company's sense organs. The machine intelligence stuff is its mind.

In 2013, the most interesting part of the Google organism will be its nervous system. In 2012, Google rolled out amazingly fast, relatively affordable fiber optic Internet service in Kansas City. It also released Compute Engine, making Google's massive reserves of processing power available to outside customers. Google is an organism that thrives in a highly networked world, and now it has matured to the point that its business improves the networks themselves, so even more businesses can thrive.

As far as consumer technologies to look forward to in 2013, there are always Project Glass and self-driving cars. 2012 promises to be the year that people start wearing Google's augmented reality goggles in the real world, perhaps trying out optical search and other new interfaces to Google's web of information. And with so many mobile devices making such detailed maps of human traffic patterns, there are bound to be breakthroughs in Google's ambitions to automate transportation using the power of mobile data.

Nexus photos credit: Eliot Weisberg.