Just what a generation of Googlers doesn’t need: more false hopes from Google Chairman Eric Schmidt that Google is a treasure trove of answers to their questions.

Schmidt said in an interview this week that that Google aims to “compute the right answer” to questions typed in by users rather than just provide links.


We’ve written before here about why Google as a business is not the same as a neutral finder of information, as well as why computers such as Jeopardy’s Watson or the ones at Google don’t actually think, but only seem as if they are thinking.

Just why, then, is Google going to be unable to “compute answers” much of the time? Among other reasons,

  • Most things in the world aren’t on Google. You can’t get answers to questions that depend on information that isn’t there. Google yourself: how much information about your whole life can you find? Every roommate you ever had? Every job? Significant other? Dispute? Most people can find perhaps one percent of their life on line, if that. The fact that Google wasn’t around before 1998 is one reason for this, but there are others.
  • As we wrote before, Google likes to give you information about the things that are profitable for Google, not useful for you. We know how a library index is put together, but Google’s algorithms, ever changing, are a business secret. Libraries get funding from the public, but Google has to make its money from ads.
  • Using Google properly requires “meta searching,” or searching for the thing that will lead you to the answer you want. You think a computer can do this, but it’s remarkably difficult to program. Say you want to find an optician in a particular state. He probably won’t be on Google, because the authority that licenses opticians there is either not on line or uses PDF documents that Google’s robots don’t index. But if you Google optician licensing authorities, you could then download and read the PDF file to find the person you’re looking for.
  • Google and most computers are rotten at telling you what ought to be there, but isn’t. Can’t find a Big Four accounting firm that looks after Bernard Madoff? Google might give you the answer that his accountant is a one-room operation in the suburbs. It won’t add that this seems mighty fishy and there are more important questions with which to follow up.

 Remember that Google is tool for thinking people, not a substitute for thinking.