Friday 4 September 2009

Rajiv Motwani Interview Part-2


Rajeev Motwani Unplugged-II
(This interview was conducted by Shivanand Kanavi at Stanford University, Palo Alto, CA in July 2002)
For the first part of the interview


Rajeev Motwani: The last one year I am spending a lot of time at Google, at least an hour or two every day. In the summer I am spending half my time at Google working on research projects and the next generation. These guys are working on something that I could contribute to and I am happy about it.

Shivanand Kanavi: What is the next generation? People are talking about contextual searches, semantics and all that. Can it be done at all, it all sounds like a wish list.
RM: Science progresses by making up wish lists. They are always unattainable but on a scale of one to hundred if one takes three small steps it is a big thing. How get appearance of semantics and context, without solving the big problems of artificial intelligence.

SK: Machine translation itself is big issue.
RM: Yes but a lot that one can do before you get there which is in the direction of context and semantics. Google has 50 plus PhDs among about 300 people. A lot of them good Stanford PhDs a lot of them do machine learning, artificial intelligence, systems, algorithms… everything. I am enjoying it.

SK: Is there any competition for Google?
RM: There is always competition. Once when I was interviewed by TIME magazine, when Google was just being set up as a company and the PR people at the Google said it would be good if you talk to the journalists. I said Ok but I did not know that you have to talk to them differently. You have to be careful with them. In the end while they were packing up they said by the way is there any competition to Google? I said ‘the biggest competition to Google is Google itself. There is always arrogance of youth. One forgets that just as they were 21 year old at one time when 30-40 search engines existed and they started with a shoe string budget. (I know it because I was one of the contributors.) With less than $50,000 dollars they started this, which has become so big. They did not know that they have no right to do what they were doing and succeed.’ They put all of that in the article in TIME.

SK: That is anyway good advice.
RM: The problem with being young, I was there once, is that you always believe that you can do whatever that you set out to do. Usually you are wrong but some people turn out to be right and go on to change the world. Someone will figure out a better way of doing things than us. That is why Google is hiring all these smart PhDs. They are doing a good job so far. But I will never underestimate the PhDs that are coming out. But you need to be very smart to do better because it is a non trivial thing to do better than Google.

SK: If the next step is understanding the question and then searching for the answer then the machine should be able to first understand the question. When we don’t have that how are we going to go ahead. Then there are people who are talking about an Indian language Google!
RM: Even what Google is doing now, which is very shallow semantics, in Indian languages is a very big thing. Without trying to build it from scratch can you do in other languages what you have done in English, that itself is a big challenge and there enough people in Google working on that. It is hard for various other reasons also. Google claims it has 2 billion pages. I don’t know how many they have, but let us say they have 20 billion pages. Each page has 1000 words and if you are getting a billion queries a day, then you have to search through a trillion words a billion times a day. Can you imagine the scale of that! You might have the best technology that understands the semantics and context and all that but how do you build a machine that does it billion times trillion every day! I have seen other people who have shown to me that they can come up with better answers than Google if they are given 100 web pages. If they are given 10,000 pages they take an hour and if they get a billion then they are never going to do it. So the greatness of Google is not just technology, understanding the structure etc but doing it in 0.2 sec regardless of the query.

SK: Does the answer lie in quantum search algorithms?
RM: That is still science fiction. Even if you were able to make them work, making tens of thousands of machines work with each other is a different ball game. There are pure system problems and not AI or search algorithms. Storing, indexing, searching and then when thousands of queries come each second you have to make them all happy by giving the answer in 0.2 seconds. If you take 0.5 seconds then they are not happy. They are not paying for it but they are unhappy then they may not come back and what keeps Google’s business model going is that millions keep coming back.

SK: It is a great project no doubt. People are talking about building Universal Digital Library. But if you have scanned and built a large digital library finally you need to search out the relevant information. It is back to Library Science! The digital library is supposed to be one great spin off of the Internet technology.
RM: Yes. I used to go to Stanford library on the average twice a day. I have not set my foot in the library since ’96. Everything I do sitting on my machine here. That is the difference it has done to my life. Everything is on the web, unless it is some paper written 50 years ago and is only in hard copy. If that is the case then I should go and do something else anyway.

SK: Besides Google what is provoking you intellectually?
RM: I get bored too soon in everything I do in life. The new thing in my life is the start-up work partly motivated by what I saw happening in Google. I invest in companies, I mentor companies, I sit on board, the whole business side of it. That has its own challenges. It stretches different parts of your brain. It is a strange mix of common sense and technology. I have invested in software companies, box companies, security, chip companies, storage and search everything. I have become a start-up junkie right now.