had been building a massive network of interconnected computers, linked together
in ways modeled on the human brain. The team had engineered 16,000 processors
in 1,000 computers, which—combined—were capable of making 1 billion connections. This was unprecedented for a computer system, though still far from a
human brain’s capacity of more than 100 trillion connections.
To test how this massive neural net processed data, the engineers had run a deceptively simple experiment. For three days straight, they had fed the machine a diet
of millions of random images from videos on You Tube, which Google had acquired
in 2006. They gave it no other instructions, waiting to see what it would do if left on
its own. What they learned was that a computer brain bingeing on You Tube is not so
different from a human’s. In a remote part of the computer’s memory, Dean and his
peers discovered that it had spontaneously generated a blurry, overpixelated image
of one thing it had seen repeatedly over the course of 72 hours: a cat.
This was a machine teaching itself to think.
The day he watched this kind of intelligence emerge from Google’s servers for
the first time, Pichai remembers feeling a shift in his thinking, a sense of premonition. “This thing was going to scale up and maybe reveal the way the universe
works,” he says. “This will be the most important thing we work on as humanity.”
The rise of AI inside Google resembles a journey billions of us are on collectively,
hurtling into a digital future that few of us fully understand—and that we can’t
opt out of. One dominated in large part by Google. Few other companies (let alone
governments) on the planet have the ability or ambition to advance computerized thought. Google operates more products, with 1 billion users, than any other
tech company on earth: Android, Chrome, Drive, Gmail, Google Play Store, Maps,
Photos, Search, and You Tube. Unless you live in China, if you have an internet connection, you almost certainly rely on Google to augment some parts of your brain.
Shortly after Pichai took over as CEO, in 2015, he set out to remake Google as an
“AI first” company. It already had several research-oriented AI divisions, includ-
ing Google Brain and DeepMind (which it acquired in 2014), and Pichai focused
on turning all that intelligence about intelligence into new and better Google
products. Gmail’s Smart Compose, introduced in May 2018, is already suggesting
more than 2 billion characters in email drafts each week. Google Translate can
re-create your own voice in a language you don’t speak. And Duplex, Google’s AI-
powered personal assistant, can book appointments or reservations for you by
“This was 2012, in a room with a small
team, and there were just a few of us,” he tells
me. An engineer named Jeff Dean, a legend-
ary programmer at Google who helped build
its search engine, had been working on a
new project and wanted Pichai to have a look.
“Anytime Jeff wants to update you on something, you just get excited by it,” he says.
Pichai doesn’t recall exactly which building he was in when Dean presented his work,
though odd details of that day have stuck with
him. He remembers standing, rather than sitting, and someone joking about an HR snafu
that had designated the newly hired Geoffrey
Hinton—the “Father of Deep Learning,” an AI
researcher for four decades, and, later, a Turing Award winner—as an intern.
The future CEO of Google was an SVP at
the time, running Chrome and Apps, and
he hadn’t been thinking about AI. No one at
Google was, really, not in a significant way.
Yes, Google cofounders Larry Page and Sergey
Brin had stated publicly 12 years prior that
artificial intelligence would transform the
company: “The ideal search engine is smart,”
Page told Online magazine in May 2000. “It has
to understand your query, and it has to understand all the documents, and that’s clearly AI.”
But at Google and elsewhere, machine learning had been delivering meager results for
decades, despite grand promises.
Now, though, powerful forces were stirring
inside Google’s servers. For a little more than a
year, Dean, Andrew Ng, and their colleagues
THE HUMAN BRAIN IS A FUNNY THING. CERTAIN MEMORIES CAN
STICK WITH US FOREVER: THE BIRTH OF A CHILD, A CAR CRASH,
AN ELECTION DAY. BUT WE ONLY STORE SOME DETAILS;THE
COLOR OF THE HOSPITAL DELIVERY ROOM OR THE SMELL OF THE
POLLING STATION;WHILE OTHERS FADE, SUCH AS THE FACE OF
THE NURSE WHEN THAT CHILD WAS BORN, OR WHAT WE WERE
WEARING DURING THAT ACCIDENT. FOR GOOGLE CEO SUNDAR
PICHAI, THE DAY HE WATCHED AI RISE OUT OF A LAB IS ONE
HE’LL REMEMBER FOREVER.