Mind Matters News and Analysis on Natural and Artificial Intelligence

Google.com or Google.gov?

A political analyst argues that Google is beginning to mesh with governments whose values are compatible with its own.
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Adam J. White

Conflicts between Google, one of the world’s largest companies, and government have been making news, as for example when CEO Sundar Pichai snubbed a Senate meeting. But in a recent issue of The New Atlantis, a political analyst looked at a different angle: the way in which Google is beginning to mesh with governments whose values are compatible with its own:

For eight years, Google and the Obama administration forged a uniquely close relationship. Their special bond is best ascribed not to the revolving door, although hundreds of meetings were held between the two; nor to crony capitalism, although hundreds of people have switched jobs from Google to the Obama administration or vice versa; nor to lobbying prowess, although Google is one of the top corporate lobbyists.

Rather, the ultimate source of the special bond between Google and the Obama White House — and modern progressive government more broadly — has been their common ethos. Both view society’s challenges today as social-engineering problems, whose resolutions depend mainly on facts and objective reasoning. Both view information as being at once ruthlessly value-free and yet, when properly grasped, a powerful force for ideological and social reform. And so both aspire to reshape Americans’ informational context, ensuring that we make choices based only upon what they consider the right kinds of facts — while denying that there would be any values or politics embedded in the effort. Adam J. White, “Google.gov” at The New Atlantis

A key goal for Google, in its outreach to society, has been to combat “fake news,” on the assumption that it drives many distressing and undesirable political changes in the Western world. The trouble is, the claim is doubtful. More careful analysis shows that key pattern changes that were ignored or dismissed by mainstream pundits are the usual drivers of such changes. With respect to the outcome of the US 2016 election for example—still traumatic to many in media—a Canadian pundit crisply summarized last year,

Fake news is suddenly a big theme of much American reporting… The real story is much simpler. An entire swathe of the American media willingly, early, and determinedly locked themselves into a false or partisan reading of the campaign. In plainest terms they were overtly hostile to Trump, and overplayed his every fault and flaw. (And they were many) Contrarily they cossetted Hillary. It isn’t that they misread the election; it’s that they gave to their partisan wishes the status of fact. Rex Murphy, “The ‘fake news’ theme is itself fake news. ” at National Post

There is certainly fake news out there. But claims for its importance, relative to actual news about one’s own environment, are usually overstated. Readers who follow the growing controversies over the free flow of information will find much to reflect on in Adams’s long-form discussion of how Google shapes the search for information in the pursuit of its social goals.

Google is currently trying to soften its image in the midst of recent controversies about, for example, helping the Chinese government monitor citizens and its own vulnerability to hacks. A current corporate  initiative is the offer of funding for innovative AI approaches to world problems:

The competition, called the AI Impact Challenge, was announced today at an event called AI for Social Good held at the company’s Sunnyvale, California office, and it’s being overseen and managed by the company’s Google.org charitable arm. Google is positioning it as a way to integrate nonprofits, universities, and other organizations not within the corporate and profit-driven world of Silicon Valley into the future-looking development of AI research and applications. The company says it will award up to $25 million to a number of grantees to “help transform the best ideas into action.” Nick Statt, “Google is hosting a global contest to develop AI that’s beneficial for humanity” at The Verge

But some issues may turn on a more basic question: Is Google becoming, as George Gilder argues in Life after Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy, one of the problems that need solving?

Hat tip: Heather Zeiger

See also: Would Google be happier if America were run more like China?

Google branches out into politics

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Digital dicatorship