Google’s astounding new search tool will answer any question by reading thousands of books

TED curator Chris Anderson and Ray Kurzweil.
TED curator Chris Anderson and Ray Kurzweil.
Image: Bret Hartman / TED
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Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Imagine if you could gather thousands of writers in a circle to discuss one question. What would optimist Thomas L. Friedman say about intervening in Syria, for example? Would chaos theorist Santo Banerjee concur?

Google now has a way to convene that kind of forum—in half a second. Speaking to TED curator Chris Anderson yesterday (April 13), legendary futurist Ray Kurzweil introduced “Talk to Books” a new way to find answers on the internet that should bring pleasure to researchers, bookworms and anyone seeking to expand their thinking on a range of topics.

Type a question into “Talk to Books,” and AI-powered tool will scan every sentence in 100,000 volumes in Google Books and generate a list of likely responses with the pertinent passage bolded.

Speed reader.
Speed reader.
Image: Google

Talk to Books will tackle any query you have, however trivial, esoteric, or abstract. For example, here are the first two results for “How can I stop thinking and fall asleep?”:

Often people with sleep problems do actually sleep during some part of the night but don’t realise that they do. If you suspect that this is happening for you, then try giving yourself reassuring messages that you can gradually fall asleep. You can also reassure yourself that: from Self-Hypnosis For Dummies by Mike Bryant, Peter Mabbutt

…asleep right away, I try to focus my thoughts on God’s protection until I naturally drift away (Psalm 3:5-6, 4:8; 121:4). By sending your mind to something restful, stimuli to the brain is reduced and you naturally fall asleep. The more you get in a routine, the easier it is to keep it, since your body gets used to it.(view in book) from Thriving at College: Make Great Friends, Keep Your Faith, and Get Ready for the … by Alex Chediak, Alex Harris, Brett Harris

Type in “What should I have for dinner?” and you get answer like:

Is it late afternoon and you still have no idea what to make for dinner? Like any meal, dinner can be stressful when you don’t plan ahead…from Red Light, Green Light, Eat Right: The Food Solution That Lets Kids Be Kids by Joanna Dolgoff

…city dwellers and recipes using fresh ingredients have been reinterpreted to meet the demands of healthy lifestyles. Whatever your body desires, there’s something in the Italian cuisine to satisfy you. Whether you’re exhausted from lovemaking or just need to jump start your love life after a busy day, there’s an…from 101 Top Foodie Sex Tips by Evan, Lola

And here are the first few for ”What is love?”:

…misleadingly called self-love has nothing in common with the real feeling of love (p. 329). Genuine love is aroused when one person observes another who possesses some pleasing quality, such as beauty or charm or talent, which matches and elicits the pleasing quality possessed by the feeling of love itself (p. 330-1). from The Invention of Autonomy: A History of Modern Moral Philosophy by Jerome B. Schneewind

..people who are happily in love or rejected by their loved ones. After a great deal of research and testing of her primary hypothesis, Fisher concluded that love is deeply embedded in the architecture and chemistry of the human brain, which makes it a part of human nature and a universal human experience (Fisher, 2004). from Sexuality and Its Disorders: Development, Cases, and Treatment by Mike Abrams

Kurzweil noted that Talk to Books is not meant to replace keyword search. It uses “semantic search,” drawing on the ability of the tool’s AI to understand natural human language. Results range from goofy to profound, but semantic search’s goal is to call up a sentence that sounds like a plausible retort a person might say in a conversation.

“Semantic search is based on searching meaning, rather than on keywords or phrases” elaborates Kurzweil on his blog. “Developed with machine learning, it uses ‘natural language understanding’ of words and phrases.” A director of engineering at Google, the 70-year-old transhumanism advocate leads a team studying how to train computers to read and respond like humans. Last year, his team introduced a time-saving utility for some of Google’s email products called “Smart Reply,” which parses an open email, and then spits out a handful of (theoretically relevant) pre-written responses for you to quickly select and send.

Talk to Books is best deployed as a book-discovery or inspiration-gathering tool. It could conceivably be useful for brainstorming new angles on a topic or used as a quick way get quotes from  books. “It’s good for exploring ideas, it’s fun just to play with it,” Kurzweil says.