Google 2.0: Why MIT scientists are building a new search engine
The truth is a messy business, but an information revolution is coming. Danny Hillis and Peter Hopkins discuss knowledge, fake news and disruption at NeueHouse in Manhattan.
Peter Hopkins: Among other projects—you're doing lots of stuff—you get involved in some very heady questions about the origins of truth on the internet. And this is where we're getting folks because the work that Danny's describing now in theory ultimately became a venture, right? Metaweb.
Danny Hillis: So that's right. So what I really thought is that what we need to do is have a way of representing the knowledge of the world in a way that machines can get at them, and take advantage of it—and that that should be shared. Everybody should be able to get at it. That is, in some sense if the human knowledge isn't a shared resource—then what is? I mean what has civilization been doing all these years? So I created a company that built this database called Freebase. It was a free database. And the company basically took any kind of public knowledge that we could get, information about anything and put it in machine-readable format.
We were kind of creating with the idea that this is going to be useful to the world. We didn't really have a business model. And we started building it up, and then it became useful to lots of different people including particularly all the search engines. So eventually Google bought it, of course. And then I got Google to agree to keep it open for three years, but they only kept the part that was already open open, and they started building it up. And so now Google has something called the Knowledge Graph which is the evolution of this. And it probably has about 100 billion different entities. So everybody in this room is in that graph. This building is in that graph.
Peter Hopkins: Yes, I took a screenshot earlier of when you just Googled NeueHouse, and all of these different—
Danny Hillis: That's right. NeueHouse is obviously in the graph. So this event is, and yes. So anything like a person, a place, an event. Anything like that is in this huge knowledge base, and all the relationships between them are. So when you, for instance, print out a Google map, that is rendered from the Knowledge Graph; so the Knowledge Graph knows the bus schedules and it knows the address of the restaurant and the traffic.
Peter Hopkins: It's drawing all this information together around the thing that the searcher cares about.
Danny Hillis: That's right. So the map is just in some sense a custom rendering of a piece of the Knowledge Graph for your particular purpose. And also by the way, I don't know – this doesn't have any ads on it, but the other thing is that the ads are also like a lot of Knowledge Graph about what the products are about and whether—it probably has knowledge about you, specifically, and so on. So it's gone way beyond the kind of public knowledge, also again it probably has very particular private knowledge about people too.
Peter Hopkins: Now, from Google's perspective it's safe to say that this is a quantum leap in terms of the original basis of its citation-based search model. All of a sudden it is now providing this multidimensional search that is drawing in way more richness.
Danny Hillis: It still does the old kind of search. So right now when you, let's say I put in museums of New York. You know, "museums in New York." Well, it still does the old keyword search of searching for pages that have the word "museum" and the phrase "New York," but it doesn't—if you say "an exhibition in Manhattan" or something, you might have something that's a museum in New York that actually didn't use the word "museum" and "New York" on the page. But the Knowledge Graph knows that Manhattan is in New York, and it knows that exhibitions are in museums, or may know something is a museum even if it doesn't use the word museum in its title.
And so it's actually able to pick that up even though it's not, it doesn't have the keyword. So that will play into the search results that come up. It does a search that's based on the semantics. And, of course, that's very important because that kind of knowledge is completely language independent too. So the same knowledge that informs your search in English also informs somebody's search in Mandarin or Hindi or something like that.
So the good news is it's turned out to be really useful. There are these big representations of knowledge. But the bad news is the whole idea of it being this free, open thing that everybody was going to use has actually become really just something that is a competitive advantage of Google, and now other search engines and other companies will make their own I'm sure. Apple is working on it, Amazon, you know. Each of the big companies – IBM, Microsoft. They'll each work on their own database. So the world could go in one of two directions: We could either have this sort of oligarchy of big companies that have giant knowledge bases that they use for proprietary advantage, or it could flip over and say it becomes a public resource, that we could say "We want knowledge to be a public resource. And we want, in particular, knowledge that's tied to who said what," because this is not, it doesn't represent truth, remember! It represents who said stuff and that becomes then a resource for doing things like sorting out what's fake news or deciding what medical treatments, what effects are in the scientific literature, things like that that really don't align very well with commercial goals.
Peter Hopkins: And this is where Underlay comes in. Underlay in many respects is your attempt to kind of reclaim this technology as the public good that you kind of initially envisioned it as.
Danny Hillis: Yes, it's my penance for having sold the other one to Google.
Peter Hopkins: So I'm actually stuck on the screen here. I thought there was a very nice paragraph on the very simple Underlay website, which basically in written terms explains kind of what it's attempting to do. And it says The Underlay aggregates statements and reported observations, along with citations of who made and who published them. For example, it would not contain the bare assertion that "Sudan's population was 39M in 2008", but rather that "Sudan's population was 'provisionally' 39M in 2008, according to the UN's statistics division in 2011, referencing Sudan's national census, as reported by its Central Bureau of Statistics, and as contested by the Southern People's Liberation Movement."
Danny Hillis: And it would do that not in those words, but in a kind of machine-readable.
Peter Hopkins: Right. So that those could be – and ultimately this version of what you are going at becomes almost a kind of record of all of these observations over time, and then can be tracked. So if we wanted to get to the heart of, let's say, whether in one of these hearings we just watched, somebody said one or the other, we could trace it potentially back to the first recorded incidents.
Danny Hillis: Yes. And if you take a problem like that I would regard that as an application of the Underlay, just like Google Maps and say drawing a map is. But if you take sorting through fake news and recognizing when rumors are getting out of control, in order to do that you really need a very complex representation of who's saying what. So you can kind of trace whether this person said that or this person said that this person said that. Or the New York Times said that, you know, the Drudge Report said that. And so there is something that needs to be built on top of the Underlay that is essentially a network of trust for that purpose. So somebody has to say well, okay, I trust New York Times more than I trust Fox News or vice versa.
Peter Hopkins: And these would be organizations or individuals with some sort of framework of analysis that would leverage the Underlay for interpretative purposes.
Danny Hillis: And it's going to be for different purposes. I mean an awful lot of the things that people argue about—I mean, is Taiwan a province of China? Well, you know, if you're doing something with the Chinese government you've got to count it as one. If you're doing something with Taiwan you're probably not going to count it. So for some purposes it "is", for some purposes it "isn't". And so what's the truth of that? Well there isn't exactly a truth. It's, you know, what's the purpose, what's the trust in it? and so on. And many of these – so I sort of feel like the Underlay is, in some sense it's a piece of the plumbing that we need to deal with the fact that the amount of information has become overwhelming, that no human can hold it all in their heads. Nobody can be sort of familiar with all the news sources or things like that. And then that lets us build these things on top of it where computers help us be smarter in sort of navigating these networks of trust.
Peter Hopkins: And so you were conceiving of this challenge—This is in the mid, early 2000s and what was the first inklings of an approach that technology could provide to addressing this, and to kind of capturing the chain, if you will, of custody of information.
Danny Hillis: So the idea was to build something that basically said what the agreed on the things that you were talking about, the entities that you were talking about—Let people make statements about the relationships between them but then have some provenance of who made those statements, so that instead of recording that "the glass is sitting on the table," you record, "Danny said the glass is sitting on the table on such and such a day." And then once you have all that information recorded then that lets you, first of all it lets you record information without worrying to much about whether it's true. It's true that I said that, which is much easier to determine than whether it's true that the glass is actually on the table. But then it also lets you apply basically your idea of trust afterwards, after you get more information about who I am—or later you find out I'm a liar or later you find out the glass was someplace else.
Peter Hopkins: You can weigh those previous recordings against it.
Danny Hillis: Exactly. So the idea is that what we really need to do is we need to separate up two things.
We need to separate the record of what different people said and who said it—the provenance of what was said—And then separately have in some sense a network of trust which is going to be different for different purposes.
Ultimately there's lots of kinds of knowledge that I think really are fundamentally part of the public common, the public good. And I hope that those will end up in it, and I think it's not as complicated as copyright law where you're taking the expression of the individual artist and things like that. A fact is a fact. It's not copyrightable, to own truth. If somebody figures out the geographical location of this building, that's just a truth. Nobody owns that. And, really, it's to everybody's advantage to share that.
- In 2005, Danny Hillis co-founded Freebase, an open-source knowledge database that was acquired by Google in 2010. Freebase formed the foundation of Google's famous Knowledge Graph, which enhances its search engine results and powers Google Assistant and Google Home.
- Hillis is now building The Underlay, a new knowledge database and future search engine app that is meant to serve the common good rather than private enterprise. He calls it his "penance for having sold the other one to Google."
- Powerful collections of machine-readable knowledge are becoming exceedingly important, but most are privatized and serve commercial goals.
- Decentralizing knowledge and making information provenance transparent will be a revolution in the so-called "post-truth age". The Underlay is being developed at MIT by Danny Hillis, SJ Klein, Travis Rich.
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What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Is Bitcoin akin to 'digital gold'?
- In October, PayPal announced that it would begin allowing users to buy, sell, and hold cryptocurrencies.
- Other major fintech companies—Square, Fidelity, SoFi—have also recently begun investing heavily in cryptocurrencies.
- While prices are volatile, many investors believe cryptocurrencies are a relatively safe bet because blockchain technology will prove itself over the long term.
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>The move came shortly after the payments company Square invested $50 million into Bitcoin, and after Fidelity announced that it was opening a Bitcoin fund into which qualified purchasers could invest <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-08-26/fidelity-launches-inaugural-bitcoin-fund-for-wealthy-investors" target="_blank">(minimum investment: $100,000)</a>. Together, this institutional backing might have something to do with Bitcoin's recent surge back to near its 2017 price peak of $19,783. (Bitcoin is listed at 19,384.30 as of Dec. 3.)<br></p>
Presentation slide from Sanja Kon's presentation on the evolution of money at 2020 Web Summit
Credit: Sanja Kon<p>But more importantly, it suggests cryptocurrencies might soon have the opportunity to prove themselves in real-world use cases. After all, skeptics have long doubted the ability of cryptocurrencies to go mainstream as a form of everyday payment. But people seem increasingly comfortable with digital payment systems.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"The entire world is going to come into digital first," Schulman said at Web Summit, adding that PayPal's services already go hand-in-hand with cryptocurrencies. "As we thought about it, digital wallets are a natural complement to digital currencies. We've got over 360 million digital wallets and we need to embrace cryptocurrencies."</p><p>Sanja Kon, vice president of global partnerships at the cryptocurrency payments processor company UTRUST, also spoke at Web Summit about the increasing adoption of digital payments:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"Physical cash is becoming more and more obsolete. And the next step in the evolution is digital currency."</p><p>Kon noted some of the inherent advantages of cryptocurrencies, namely ownership. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"For many people, this is really the main benefit of cryptocurrency: Users owning cryptocurrencies are able to control how they spend their money without dealing with any intermediary authority like a bank or a government, for example," Kon said, adding that there are no bank fees associated with cryptocurrencies, and that international transaction fees are significantly lower than wire transfers of fiat currency.</p><p>Kon said cryptocurrencies have unique growth opportunities in areas where people aren't integrated into modern banking systems:</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"With cryptocurrencies and blockchain, with the use of just a smartphone and access to internet, Bitcoin and cryptocurrencies can be available to populations of people and users without access to the traditional banking system."</p>
Bitcoin as 'digital gold'<p>Still, it could take years for people to start using cryptocurrencies for everyday purchases on a large scale. Despite this, many cryptocurrency advocates see digital currencies, particularly Bitcoin, as a way to store value—digital gold, essentially.</p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"I don't think Bitcoin is going to be used as a transactional currency anytime in the next five years," billionaire investor Mike Novogratz recently told <a href="https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-10-23/novogratz-says-bitcoin-is-digital-gold-not-a-currency-for-now?srnd=markets-vp" target="_blank">Bloomberg</a>. "Bitcoin is being used as a store of value. [...] "Bitcoin as a gold, as digital gold, is just going to keep going higher. More and more people are going to want it as some portion of their portfolio."</p><p>There are obvious parallels between gold and Bitcoin: Both are mined, do not degrade over time, are finite in supply, and aren't directly tied to the value of fiat currency, making them <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-gold-inflation/gold-as-an-inflation-hedge-well-sort-of-idUSKCN1GD516" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">relatively invulnerable to inflation</a>. The obvious objection is that the price of Bitcoin, and cryptocurrencies in general, is far more volatile than gold.</p><p>But for investors who believe the inherent value of cryptocurrency technology will prove itself over the long term, these price fluctuations are just bumps on the long road to the future of currency. </p><p style="margin-left: 20px;">"It's no longer a debate if crypto is a thing, if Bitcoin is an asset, if the blockchain is going to be part of the financial infrastructure," Novogratz said. "It's not if, it's when, and so every single company has to have a plan now."</p>
Singapore has approved the sale of a lab-grown meat product in an effort to secure its food supplies against disease and climate change.
Approve for your dining pleasure<span style="display:block;position:relative;padding-top:56.25%;" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="dd3f57f8baf14e654812d30a309d1f17"><iframe type="lazy-iframe" data-runner-src="https://www.youtube.com/embed/307gysA18_E?rel=0" width="100%" height="auto" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" style="position:absolute;top:0;left:0;width:100%;height:100%;"></iframe></span><p><a href="https://www.ju.st/en-us" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Eat Just</a>, a company that produces animal-alternative food products, announced the news earlier this week. In what the company is calling a world first, Singapore has given it permission for a small-scale commercial launch of their GOOD Meat brand product line. For the initial run, the cultured chicken meat will be sold as an ingredient in "chicken bites."</p><p>"Singapore has long been a leader in innovation of all kinds, from information technology to biologics to now leading the world in building a healthier, safer food system. I'm sure that our regulatory approval for cultured meat will be the first of many in Singapore and in countries around the globe," Josh Tetrick, co-founder and CEO of Eat Just, <a href="https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20201201006251/en/Eat-Just-Granted-World%E2%80%99s-First-Regulatory-Approval-for-Cultured-Meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">said in a release</a>.</p><p>According to the release, Eat Just underwent an extensive safety review by the Singapore Food Agency. It provided officials "details on the purity, identity and stability of chicken cells during the manufacturing process, as well as a detailed description of the manufacturing process which demonstrated that harvested cultured chicken met quality controls and a rigorous food safety monitoring system." It also demonstrated the consistency of its production by running more than 20 cycles in its 1,200-liter bioreactors.</p><p>While Eat Just did not offer details on its propriety process, it likely follows <a href="https://www.newscientist.com/article/mg24032080-400-accelerating-the-cultured-meat-revolution/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">one similar to other lab-grown meats</a>. It starts with muscle cell samples drawn from a living animal. Technicians then isolate stem cells from the sample and culture them <em>in vitro</em>. These cultured stem cells are then placed in a bioreactor, essentially a fermenter for fleshy cells. The bioreactor contains scaffolding materials to keep the growing tissue from falling apart as well as a growth material—the sugars, salts, and other nutrients the tissue needs to grow. As the cells grow, they begin to differentiate into the muscle, fat, and other cells of meat tissue. Once grown, the tissues are formed into a meat product to be shipped to restaurants and supermarkets.</p>
An abattoir abatement?<img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg2Mjg5OS9vcmlnaW4uanBnIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTYyODg1NDI3N30.AYmFJfWQbPjK-o1IatyFHL-OLjcfXBMmQKYyvz4oT3s/img.jpg?width=980" id="8a82d" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="93f824fe4c6f397ab2b65e4665847e71" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
A graph showing the number of animals slaughtered in the United States per year from 1961–2018.
Credit: Our World in Data<p>Singapore's approval is an important step in support for clean meats—so-called because they don't require animal slaughter and would likely leave a reduced carbon footprint—but hurdles remain before widespread adoption is possible.</p><p>The most glaring is the price. The first lab-grown hamburger was eaten in London in 2013. <a href="https://www.bbc.com/news/science-environment-23576143" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">It cost roughly $330,000</a>. As with any new technology, investment, iteration, and improved manufacturing will see the price drop substantially and quickly. For comparison, Eat Just's chicken will be priced equivalent to premium chicken.</p><p>Other hurdles include up-scaling production, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/d41586-019-00373-w" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">the need for further research</a>, and developing techniques to reliably produce in-demand meats such as fish and beef. Finally, not all countries may be as receptive as Singapore. Countries with large, entrenched meat industries may protect this legacy industry through a protracted and difficult regulatory process. Though, the meat industry itself is investing in lab-grown meat. Tyson Foods, for example, has <a href="https://euromeatnews.com/Article-Tyson-Foods-announces-investment-in-clean-meat/697" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">invested in the food-tech startup Memphis Meats</a>, the company that debuted the world's first beef meatball.</p><p>"I would imagine what will happen is the U.S., Western Europe and others will see what Singapore has been able to do, the rigours of the framework that they put together. And I would imagine that they will try to use it as a template to put their own framework together," <a href="https://www.reuters.com/article/us-eat-just-singapore/singapore-approves-sale-of-lab-grown-meat-in-world-first-idUSKBN28C06Z" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Tetrick told Reuter's during an interview</a>.</p><p>Regardless of the challenges, the demand for meat substitutes is present and growing. In 2020, plant-based substitutes like Beyond Meat and Impossible foods <a href="https://bigthink.com/coronavirus/plant-based-meat" target="_self">gained a significant foothold in supermarkets</a> as meat-packing factories became coronavirus hotspots. The looming threat of climate change has also turned people away from meat as animal products. Livestock production is environmentally taxing and leaves <a href="http://css.umich.edu/factsheets/carbon-footprint-factsheet" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">a much larger carbon footprint</a> than grain and vegetable production. </p><p>Then there's the moral concern of animal cruelty. In 2018 alone, 302 million cows, 656 million turkeys, 1.48 billion pigs, and a gob-smacking 68 billion chickens were <a href="https://ourworldindata.org/grapher/animals-slaughtered-for-meat" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">slaughtered for meat worldwide</a>. And those figures do not include chickens killed in dairy or egg production.</p><p>If brought to scale and widely available, clean meats could become serious competitors to traditional meat. <a href="https://bigthink.com/technology-innovation/meat-alternatives" target="_self">One report has even predicted</a> that 60 percent of the meat people eat by 2040 won't come from slaughtered animals. It could be just the thing for people looking for a meat substitute but who find tofurkey as distasteful as, well tofurkey.</p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
A new study finds that some people just want privacy.
- Despite its reputation as a tool for criminals, only a small percentage of Tor users were actually going to the dark web.
- The rate was higher in free countries and lower in countries with censored internet access.
- The findings are controversial, and may be limited by their methodology to be general assumptions.