National Review Online

Google’s Unstable Empire

Arthur Herman reviews Life after Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy, by George Gilder

Life after Google: The Fall of Big Data and the Rise of the Blockchain Economy, by George Gilder

p(firstLetter). In the shadow of Mount Hood in Washington State, six miles west of the dam in the Columbia River that holds back the Dalles (rhymes with “pals”) rapids, Google maintains its main data center. Three glass-walled warehouses, each one 10 million cubic feet, contain 75,000 computer servers linked together by thousands of fiber-optic cables, all crammed together as tightly as possible to reduce any signal delays. High-security gates and fences keep out unwanted visitors, while ad­vanced millimeter-wave body scanners examine every person, employee, and visitor entering the building.

This is the heart of the Google empire, which today is worth almost $800 billion (the valuation of Google’s holding company, Alphabet), putting it only a couple of hundred billion dollars behind Apple Inc. and Amazon. As George Gilder notes in his new book, “empire” is a fitting word to describe Google. The size and reach of the company is unprecedented in the history of computing. Its ability to process an ever-growing database consisting of thousands of petabytes (“peta” meaning 1 quadrillion, or a million billion) and handle 1.5 trillion searches every year means that it powers large sections of the U.S. economy. It also shapes our culture and mindset — and increasingly our political system. Yet Google itself, Gilder argues, isn’t best understood as a business at all. It’s a utopian cult, powered not by technology but by a philosophy — one could even say a theology — that is about to meet its nemesis.

Gilder, a cofounder of the Discovery Institute in Seattle, has a long record of debunking conventional notions about how the world works. His groundbreaking book Wealth and Poverty (1981) debunked the idea that capitalism is driven by greed; Men and Marriage (1986) overturned the notion that chasing down so-called deadbeat dads was good social policy. His book on the microchip revolution, Microcosm (1990), made Moore’s Law — that the output of advanced digital technologies such as microchips will double every 18 months — a household term.

In his new book, it’s Bell’s Law that gets the center spread. Named after Digital Equipment Corporation engineer Gordon Bell, Bell’s Law states that every decade a hundredfold drop in the price of processing power creates a new computer architecture. This is what is happening now, Gilder argues: A new architecture for handling data and information is taking shape that will shake the Google empire to its foundations.

That new technology is blockchain. It would be an overstatement to say Gilder sees blockchain, the data-authentication system that currently secures Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, as the salvation of humanity. And, as we’ll see, there are problems ahead for blockchain that will need resolving. But what blockchain does offer is a way to escape the liberal globalist theology that Google embodies and the fallacies its empire is built on.

The first fallacy is that advanced information technology needs to be centralized to be efficient and accessible. Gilder argues that Google’s founders and visionaries have created a top-down data-gathering monopoly dressed up as altruism by New Age slogans such as “You can make money without doing evil” and “The need for information crosses all borders.”

The second fallacy is that Google is not selling services but giving them away for free. As Google’s former engineering director Alan Eustace once put it, “I look at people here as missionaries, not mercenaries” — i.e., they are not motivated by profit. Gilder notes, “The Google philosophy smacks of disdain for the money-grubbing of bourgeois society,” although its income still depends on advertisers who do the actual money-grubbing. In opposition to Eustace, Gilder quotes Tim Cook, the CEO of Apple, which still makes money the old-fashioned way: “If the service is ‘free,’ you are not the customer but the product.”

From that point of view, we are all Google’s product. Google’s algorithms determine what content we will like and not like based on innumerable layers of data collected in the past, and then its search engine serves it up, giving us the illusion that we are freely choosing something. Its empire is a monopoly disguised as a middleman, which in reality manipulates information and data for its own ends, as the American public is only belatedly realizing.

The third fallacy is that we are on the verge of a world run by artificial intelligence (AI). Gilder takes particular delight in debunking the hysteria that Elon Musk, the late Stephen Hawking, and others have generated about the prospect of AI’s overtaking and replacing humanity. He demonstrates quite convincingly that AI and “machine learning,” which Google sees as the future of information technology, are really just about processing data faster, not about learning, let alone thinking in any meaningful sense. Artificial intelligence will always be useless without a human programmer and operator — who will always have the ultimate advantage of the human brain.

The brain is one of the unique miracles of nature and not simply an organic version of a computer. “The brain,” Gilder states, is “not agglomerated in a few air-conditioned nodes but dispersed far and wide, interconnected by myriad sensory and media channels” that give it an ability for intuitive creativity that no AI machine, no matter how many neural networks at its disposal, can ever match.

In Gilder’s view, those such as Musk who dread an AI apocalypse and those such as futurologist Ray Kurzweil who celebrate AI share the same materialist-determinist fallacy that powers Google Inc.: the belief that men and machines are ultimately interchangeable.

“The materialist superstition keeps the entire Google generation from understanding mind and creation,” writes Gilder. “Consciousness depends on faith — the ability to act without full knowledge and thus the ability to be surprised and to surprise” by leaps of intuition and imagination.

A machine, by contrast, “is part of a determinist order,” he argues. “Lacking surprise or the ability to be surprised, it is self-contained and determined.” In the end, the Google gospel that the machine is better than the human being, or will be, is leading us down a technological dead end.

But the most dangerous aspect of the Google mindset, in Gilder’s view, is that security takes a back seat. Security “is the most basic and indispensable component of any information technology,” yet Google almost completely ignores it. Protecting and authenticating data are its users’ and customers’ problems, not Google’s. In a world in which the free exchange of information eventually erases borders and irons out all human differences, the company believes, serious threats to security will disappear anyway. Indeed, Google’s commitment to building an AI-research center in China — where Chinese scientists will be able to develop technologies to help the People’s Liberation Army — while Google employees publicly protest working with the Pentagon gives a clear picture of Google’s failure to take national-security concerns seriously.

So what’s the answer? Gilder is clear and unequivocal: Blockchain is the future, not just because it will protect user data but because it will allow every user safe and immediate access to that data. It will usher in a world beyond Google.

To understand how, it’s useful to have a basic grasp of how blockchain technology works. Essentially, information in a blockchain exists as a shared — and continually reconciled — database. The block­chain database isn’t stored in any single location; no centralized version of the information exists (as it does in Google’s Dalles data center) for a hacker to penetrate. Instead, it’s hosted by millions of computers simultaneously, like a spreadsheet duplicated across an entire network whose data are constantly updated and accessible to anyone on the network.

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies use blockchain to create a decentralized accounting system built on a shared ledger of transactions. If all the ledgers for a particular transaction match on every computer in the network, then that transaction is encrypted with all the other prior transactions in what’s known as a block. The new block is then added to existing blocks to form a chain of blocks — hence “blockchain.”

Blockchain gets bad press because of its association with Bitcoin, which today finds itself under financial and political siege because of its supposed unreliability as a currency of value. But as Gilder points out, the fact remains that block­chain and its technological cousins such as Ethereum and Blockstack employ the decentralized architecture that can protect and authenticate data and “address the evils of the Google Age: porous Internet security, unmoored money, regulatory overreach, network concentration, officious delays, and diminishing returns of big data.” Instead of the Dalles monolith, we have “simpler systems controlled by individual agents closer to the actual point of service,” in which every hash (i.e., the input of data that encryption outputs as characters or numbers) carries the indelible signature of all transactions going back to the original block.

The result of blockchain’s proliferation will be what Gilder dubs the Great Unbundling, as information and transactions on the Internet become connected without Google as the middleman. This will mean “radically lowering transaction costs, turning [independent] firms into networks, distributing economic power, and enabling both wealth creation and a more prosperous future.”

So far, so good. But Gilder fails to note that blockchain has its own Achilles’ heel, which is quantum computing.

Tomorrow’s quantum computers, which are already in development, will be far more powerful than today’s classical computers because they are driven by quantum physics. Instead of a binary system of bits, in which each bit is 1 or 0, quantum computers use quantum bits, or “qubits,” which can be a 1 and 0 at the same time. This radically reduces the number of operations needed to do calculations, permitting exponentially greater computing power. As a result, it will become easier to decrypt the complex algorithms that asymmetric encryption systems, including blockchain, use to secure almost all electronic data.

Why is blockchain vulnerable? As Gilder himself notes, all blockchains rely on public-key encryption: the same cryptographic building blocks that put other technologies such as “secure” Web browsing and virtual private networks at risk of attacks by a future quantum computer. What worries cybersecurity ex­perts right now is that this critical vulnerability is getting overlooked while blockchain is being used to build a myriad of future technologies.

Fortunately, solutions are at hand. The most immediate is to add truly random number generators, based on the same quantum technology, to existing encryption algorithms. Financial institutions and private cloud carriers are already installing quantum random-number generators. A British company, Ubiquicoin, has announced its goal to “become the first blockchain resistant to quantum computing cyberattacks” through the use of quantum keys.

The bottom line is that we are moving swiftly beyond the Age of Google and the assumptions that underpinned it. What Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin saw “as a world-changing AI juggernaut,” Gilder writes, “is in fact an industrial regime at the end of its rope.” He believes the “crisis of the current order in security, privacy, intellectual property, business strategy, and technology is fundamental and cannot be solved within the current computer and network architecture.”

Instead, blockchain (combined, I would argue, with quantum computing) can power a new system “exalting the singularities of creation,” of “human consciousness over mechanism,” and “real intelligence over algorithmic search.” Such a system can open “a heroic age of human accomplishment.”

Whether Gilder’s entire prediction will come true is hard to say. But his vision gives us hope that there is not only life after Google but a new age of human freedom as well.