Wednesday, December 21, 2005

Making the impossible possible

Google Earth CTO Michael Jones spoke at UCSD recently. A massive 150M video of the talk is available.

The talk is mostly a demo of Google Earth, focused on showing how all kinds of user-contributed geographically tagged data can be integrated into Google Earth.

But one part of the talk I found particularly insightful was when Michael mentioned Nobel prize winner Tjalling Koopmans and commented on Tjalling's view that new tools enable new problems to be solved:
Your perception of a thing that is a viable problem to think about is shaped by the tool you can use.

If I wanted to build a swimming pool and I had a spoon, I wouldn't think about doing it. If had a backhoe...

If we look at tools, we discover they have a life of their own. People are shaped by their tools.

Sometimes the solution to important problems ... [is] just waiting for the tool. Once this tool comes, everyone just flips in their head.
Michael was applying this to Google Earth -- that Google Earth is a tool that enables things that were not easily possible to do before -- but I think this is an insightful point about a lot of Google's work.

The goal is to build tools that enable people to find and analyze information orders of magnitude faster than before. This opens the door to attacking problems that before were prohibitively difficult to solve.

This is true of the Google search itself, the first tool many people turn to when they have a question about anything. This is true of the Google, Yahoo, MSN, and Amazon APIs, which allow people to rapidly prototype clever mashups demonstrating new ways to solve problems. This is true of Google's internal tools Sawzall and MapReduce, tools that are "major force multipliers" by allowing parallel data processing at an unprecedented scale on the Google cluster.

Problems that were difficult or impossible to solve before are becoming practical as new tools are created for processing information. It is an exciting time. Vast opportunities lie before us.

[video via Paul Kedrosky]

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