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Google Turning Its Lucrative Web Search Over to AI Machines

When Google-parent Alphabet Inc. reported eye-popping earnings last week its executives couldn’t stop talking up the company’s investments in machine learning and artificial intelligence.

For any other company that would be a wonky distraction from its core business. At Google, the two are intertwined. Artificial intelligence sits at the extreme end of machine learning, which sees people create software that can learn about the world. Google has been one of the biggest corporate sponsors of AI, and has invested heavily in it for videos, speech, translation and, recently, search.

For the past few months, a “very large fraction” of the millions of queries a second that people type into the company’s search engine have been interpreted by an artificial intelligence system, nicknamed RankBrain, said Greg Corrado, a senior research scientist with the company, outlining for the first time the emerging role of AI in search.

RankBrain uses artificial intelligence to embed vast amounts of written language into mathematical entities -- called vectors -- that the computer can understand. If RankBrain sees a word or phrase it isn’t familiar with, the machine can make a guess as to what words or phrases might have a similar meaning and filter the result accordingly, making it more effective at handling never-before-seen search queries.

Unique Questions

The system helps Mountain View, California-based Google deal with the 15 percent of queries a day it gets which its systems have never seen before, he said. For example, it’s adept at dealing with ambiguous queries, like...


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