The stations—which didn’t so much scan as photograph books—had been custom-built by Google from the sheet metal up. Each one could digitize books at a rate of 1,000 pages per hour. The book would lie in a specially designed motorized cradle that would adjust to the spine, locking it in place. Above, there was an array of lights and at least $1,000 worth of optics, including four cameras, two pointed at each half of the book, and a range-finding LIDAR that overlaid a three-dimensional laser grid on the book’s surface to capture the curvature of the paper. The human operator would turn pages by hand—no machine could be as quick and gentle—and fire the cameras by pressing a foot pedal, as though playing at a strange piano. […]
It was strange to me, the idea that somewhere at Google there is a database containing 25-million books and nobody is allowed to read them. […] It’s there. The books are there. People have been trying to build a library like this for ages—to do so, they’ve said, would be to erect one of the great humanitarian artifacts of all time—and here we’ve done the work to make it real and we were about to give it to the world and now, instead, it’s 50 or 60 petabytes on disk, and the only people who can see it are half a dozen engineers on the project who happen to have access because they’re the ones responsible for locking it up.
I asked someone who used to have that job, what would it take to make the books viewable in full to everybody? I wanted to know how hard it would have been to unlock them. What’s standing between us and a digital public library of 25 million volumes?
You’d get in a lot of trouble, they said, but all you’d have to do, more or less, is write a single database query. You’d flip some access control bits from off to on. It might take a few minutes for the command to propagate.
Because, as the human history case study suggests, when there’s something on the planet way smarter than everyone else, it can be a really bad thing for everyone else. And if AI becomes the new thing on the planet that’s way smarter than everyone else, and it turns out not to clearly belong to us—it means that it’s its own thing. Which drops us into the category of “everyone else.” […]
He sees it as only a matter of time before superintelligent AI rises up on this planet—and when that happens, he believes that it’s critical that we don’t end up as part of “everyone else.” That’s why, in a future world made up of AI and everyone else, he thinks we have only one good option: To be AI. […]
The pace of progress in this direction matters a lot. We don’t want to develop digital superintelligence too far before being able to do a merged brain-computer interface.
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