Following last week’s Q1 2018 earnings, Alphabet has published its annual Founders’ Letter. Penned this year by Sergey Brin, it traditionally serves as an update on current progress and charts the company’s future. In 2017, machine learning is unsurprisingly the overarching narrative.
The Google co-founder and Alphabet president begins the prior year’s recap by discussing the “computation explosion” due to Moore’s Law, advanced graphics, and machine learning. Brin notes on the hardware front that the “power and potential of computation to tackle important problems has never been greater.”
Using floating point operations per second as a benchmark, he notes the rapid progress from the Pentium IIs to GPUs to Google’s own Tensor Processing Units.
The Pentium IIs we used in the first year of Google performed about 100 million floating point operations per second. The GPUs we use today perform about 20 trillion such operations — a factor of about 200,000 difference — and our very own TPUs are now capable of 180 trillion (180,000,000,000,000) floating point operations per second.
Looking forward, he highlights quantum computing and Google’s work on a 72 qubit prototype that could “exponentially” trump conventional computers on a “specialized class of problems.” Brin also interestingly namechecks Ethereum and cryptocurrencies — a field that Google is rumored to be investigating.
Meanwhile, in talking about machine learning and its “astounding number of applications,” Brin highlights image understanding in Google Photos, Waymo, Home’s voice recognition, Translate, automatic captioning in YouTube, Smart Reply, disease diagnosis, discovering planets, and AutoML.
However, this “technology renaissance” driven by machine learning raises some questions like how employment will be affected, fairness, and safety.
There is serious thought and research going into all of these issues. Most notably, safety spans a wide range of concerns from the fears of sci-fi style sentience to the more near-term questions such as validating the performance of self-driving cars.
On the corporate front, Brin is “cautiously optimistic” about the nearly three-year old Alphabet restructure, while noting that projects like Waymo, Sidewalk Labs, and Project Wing are just beginning to ramp up. He ends the Founders’ Letter noting that Alphabet’s goal of using technology to solve the world’s biggest problems requires “deep responsibility, care, and humility.”
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