Lost in translation

Silicon Valley tech giant Google is vying to become the main growth platform for entrepreneurs in the Middle East. The firm's CIO Douglas Merrill tells Andrew White why the future of technology will be driven by 'search', and why a successful Arabic translation tool could help to bring East and West closer together.

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By  Andrew White Published  March 8, 2008

Silicon Valley tech giant Google is vying to become the main growth platform for entrepreneurs in the Middle East. The firm's CIO Douglas Merrill tells Andrew White why the future of technology will be driven by 'search', and why a successful Arabic translation tool could help to bring East and West closer together.

Dressed in a blue and sepia shirt, dark jeans and sporting an earring in each ear, there is something self-consciously laid-back about Douglas Merrill. Not that we should be surprised - as CIO of Google, Merrill is living testimony to the search giant's maxim that ‘You can be serious without a suit'.

We needed to solve the web search problem not just in American English... but in every language on the planet.

Within seconds of sitting down, Merrill recounts his overdressed first day at Google HQ - "We don't wear sports jackets here, dude," he was apparently told - and quotes verbatim from the search giant's list of ‘10 things we have found to be true', a corporate philosophy that namechecks both Microsoft and The Grateful Dead. It is an unusual corporate culture that stems back to Google's founders, Larry Page and Sergey Brin, and their belief in doing things differently from the accepted wisdom.

"At the time we were founded everyone thought that web search was a solved problem, but they were wrong. Larry and Sergey realised that the future lay in making all the world's information universally accessible, and useful," says Merrill.

"We believe that wherever you are, on whatever device you happen to have to hand, you should be able to reach the world's information. If you have a question, or you want to tell a story, or you want to share a photograph, then you should be able to take content, and store it somewhere in the clouds."

Google has been working hard on this ‘cloud computing' model, and Merrill insists that with internet access almost ubiquitous, the future of technology "will be driven by search".

"More and more information is becoming created every day, and humans are not psychologically very well prepared to deal with that - we get information overload very easily," he says. "We don't believe that in the future you'll be able to live without search." The web search "problem", as Merrill outlines it, is that for the system to really work, users need to be able to search in all languages. And while Google has been working on the puzzle since its inception, he admits that there is still a long way to go.

"We needed to solve the web search problem not just in American English, but also in Arabic, in Russian, in Chinese, and in every language on the planet," he says. "Now we're better at some languages than others, and we're better at some markets than others, but we can do much, much better."

Google is nevertheless making progress, as evinced by The Association of Computing Machines' - the world's largest computer science organisation - recent decision to reward the web giant for its automatic machine translation work.

"We actually have an AI programme that reads English and Arabic, and converts between the two of them," explains Merrill. "It's not as good translation as a true translator, as true translation is very, very hard. But you can get the meaning, you can understand.

"The father of AI, Alan Turing, set the challenge: the definition of intelligence was the ability to speak with a human as if the machine were human," he continues. "Since he set that goal in the 1940s, we've been systemically trying to translate and failing. But for the first time, Google's automatic translating from English to Arabic and back - and we also won an award for English to Mandarin and back - is actually quite good. We're very proud of that research."

Google's dedication to Arabic and Mandarin confirms that both the Middle East and China are key to the company's growth plans for the next decade. Merrill is spending around 50% of his time on - if not in - the Arab world, and is intent on dragging the region's small and medium-sized businesses online.

"We believe that sustainable social change comes from sustainable economic change, and sustainable economic change comes from job creation," he explains. "We want to use Google as a platform for small and medium-sized businesses and entrepreneurs, to grow their business and create new jobs. We believe this is key to getting additional search activity, and social and economic growth.

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